Part of Kathy Caprino’s series “Today’s True Leadership”
People have written about and discussed the concept of “innovation” at organizations extensively over many years. Interestingly, there has been an overly keen emphasis on a set of prescribed steps that are deemed necessary to innovate—as if there’s a process that can be replicated and repeated over and over in some automatic way, when what’s really needed is an intentional focus on the talent, thinking, motivation, desires and skill sets required of those individuals who are charged with engaging in innovation. There’s a gap in our understanding of exactly how to build an organizational culture that fosters truly innovative thinking and behavior.
To learn more about successful innovation as a whole, and how leaders can identify talent that moves the innovation process forward in substantive ways, I caught up with Mauro Porcini—senior vice president and chief design officer at PepsiCo. In the past ten years, Porcini and his team have won more than 1,800 design and innovation awards, and in 2018 PepsiCo was recognized by Fortune in its Business by Design list. He was previously 3M’s first chief design officer. Over the years, Porcini has been the recipient of many honors, among them Fast Company’s 50 Most Influential Designers in America, Fortune’s 40 under 40, and Ad Age’s list of the 50 world’s most influential creative personalities. In 2018, Porcini was awarded with a knighthood (cavaliere) by the president of the Italian Republic.
Porcini is the first ever Chief Design Officer of PepsiCo, in charge of leading a design-driven and human-centered approach to brand building and innovation in the multi-billion-dollar corporation. His latest book is The Human Side of Innovation: The Power of People In Love With People, is a timely book that is both manifesto and memoir and offers an compelling call to prioritize human-centered design and innovation when it is most at risk.
Porcini shares below his personal take and experience on innovation and the traits that innovators embody and nurture within a thriving work culture:
Kathy Caprino: Mauro, in your book, you discuss how innovation needs to come from a place of love for others. What does this mean to you, and what are the consequences of designing “selfishly” as you say?
Mauro Porcini: For too long, mediocrity has been protected through barriers to entry including scale of production, distribution, communication, and patents, at the service of business profit. It was almost impossible for the everyday person to go and compete with big companies, and therefore, these barriers were protecting both extraordinary products as well as mediocre ones. As a result, companies began to adopt innovations that placed financial and economic value above all else.
Today, these barriers are crumbling under the force of new technologies and digital platforms allowing anyone to invent a product and reach the end user directly through the internet. For the first time in history, people can go after big brands in a much easier way. They can invent a product, get funding online or through the proliferation of funds hunting for the next start-up and they can produce it at a lower cost. They can also reach the end user directly through e-commerce and social media, bypassing traditional large-scale distribution and massive media investments once necessary to have a voice.
This means that companies, big and small, have only one choice – to create extraordinary products with a 360-degree perspective, from object to packaging, branding to service, and communication to experience. Mediocrity is no longer defensible. Focusing on the human being becomes the most powerful barrier to entry. Companies must produce an excellent product, or someone else will do it on their behalf, and that is the consequence that they’re currently facing if they choose to design selfishly.
Caprino: Would you call that “love” then, or an interest in benefiting others and society? And how can leaders foster that “love”?
Porcini: Very fair question. The interest in benefiting others and society is an integral component of that love. The word “love” takes that idea further and to new dimensions, and it implies that you have passion for that goal. Love describes the fire that inflames your heart, the energy that animates your soul, and the drive that makes you overcome any kind of barrier in order to realize your dream. It also refers to the love you have for others in a cross-functional and multicultural kind of effort.
To foster that love, leaders need to embrace it and practice it every day by becoming role models of that love and applying it to their business. Then they need to celebrate it and talk about its importance. Leaders should reward people who embody it in their behaviors and point out its positive impact within the organization.
Caprino: Your focus in your book and your work as a whole is human-centered design. Can you explain what that is exactly and how we can tell when human-centered design is at work and being demonstrated?
Porcini: The word design in modern society is often misleading. When we think of design, we equate it with expensive clothing, high-end furniture brands and luxury experiences. But it’s much more complex than that. Design is synonymous with innovation. A designer’s goal is to modify the status quo and produce a solution that didn’t exist before. “Human-centered design” is a pleonastic (redundant) term because every good design should always be human-centered. It’s good practice to spell it out, though, and remind the world what design is about: a visceral focus on the human being. A human-centered, or design-driven, approach to innovation is the one that falls in love with a human problem or desire and tries to create an extraordinary solution. It’s design that creates personal and social value first and financial and economic value afterward.
If you’ve discovered an excellent product, the company that produced this product most likely was driven by a human-centered approach – an approach that puts people first instead of profit growth, market share gaining, or technology deployment.
Caprino: How can a culture of innovation transform an organization?
Porcini: For any company, the most efficient way to do business may appear to be to protect the status quo of existing products and brands and extract as much financial value out of them as possible. The moment you innovate, you introduce some form of cost to the equation: the cost of the innovation team, the cost of the innovation process, the cost of new production facilities and tools, and the cost of launching and communicating the new solution. In other words, innovation is inefficient by definition and requires investments that directly impact the bottom line.
It’s also risky – data points to innovation failing most of the time. This explains why finance-driven organizations tend to view innovation as a negative variable that ideally should be avoided. Luckily for the world, innovation is a need, and large corporations aren’t excluded from this need. If you don’t innovate with the interest of your users in mind, other companies will do it in your stead, beating you to market.
Today, innovation is a more urgent need than it was 20 or so years ago because products and brands that don’t fulfill people’s desires are likely to fail. In the past, corporations could buy innovation through mergers and acquisitions or could drive a safe and predictable innovation pipeline led by progressive technological advancement. Now, those same companies need to change gears and build a holistic culture of innovation in-house, integrated in their genetic code, integral to their way of thinking and operating.
The reason for this is that the innovation pace of the market is exponentially faster, and it impacts every dimension of an organization: product, branding, communication, experience, distribution, and everything going on behind the scenes. You can still buy part of your innovation, but that’s not enough. You need to build your innovation culture inside and you need to transform as well as innovate your culture of innovation itself.
Caprino: Do you have some practical advice on how to drive a culture of innovation in an established company?
Porcini: Here’s what helped me successfully implement a culture of design and human-centered innovation over the years at both PepsiCo and 3M:
Find the right people — This is the most important driver of all. Do your research and try to understand what the key skills are that you need in these people. I call these individuals “unicorns.” They are “people in love with people,” exceptional humans with a human-centered innovation mindset.
Find a sponsor — The main role of the sponsor is to protect the new culture from being negatively impacted by the existing one.
Wire your new people into the established organization — Connect the people driving the new culture with the existing organization, give them the right positions to drive the proper credibility, and assign them a seat at the table.
Find co-conspirators — Hunt for people in other functions of the organization that want to take a leap of faith and experiment with you, building together proof points that can quickly show the value of the new culture.
Build proof points — Develop projects that help you show the value of the new culture. And do it quickly — even if things aren’t perfect, and even if you need to make compromises.
Tell the story of those proof points — It’s not enough to create proof points. You need the company to know about them. Talk about them in case studies, books, conferences, interviews, and internal newsletters.
And finally, connect with external endorsers. The authentic endorsements of customers and other supporters have been and will continue to be vital to drive credibility and excitement.