Innovation psychologist Dr Amantha Imber dives deep into the importance of strategy, clear process in fostering innovation culture.
“People need to feel safe to fail. Environments that are risk averse really do kill innovation.”
Dr Amantha Imber should know. She’s dedicated the last decade of her life to understanding the science behind driving innovation in organisations, and now the Inventium CEO is driving people to become better innovators – by embracing risk.
With a client list that spans Google, Coca-Cola, Apple, Lego, Red Bull and Disney, Amantha has had plenty of experience in being called into companies looking for ways to encourage creative thinking usually for one of two reasons.
“Firstly, companies are realising that innovation is a great way to accelerate growth,” she says. “The other reason that companies get the innovation bug is because they realise that if they don’t innovate, they’re probably going to become irrelevant.
“Disrupt, or be disrupted. If you’re not thinking about how to disrupt in your sector, then I can guarantee that your competitors are thinking about it. Better you disrupt yourself than have someone do it for you.”
She cautions marketers not to underestimate the power of finding an unmet customer need, and not to dismiss the disruptive capability of a low-budget solution. If you’re to be the one who innovates in that arena, you must understand your customer before you start to problem-solve.
“There’s no point getting inspired by a really fascinating podcast or a great TED talk, or an amazing book, unless you’re connected with the customer,” she emphasises. “Combine that understanding with strategy…and make sure that is aligned to what matters to the customer.”
Innovation doesn’t just happen, and it doesn’t occur in isolation. Amantha explains that before you start, there are three things that you need to focus on. The first is having a good innovation strategy; the second is having a clear innovation process; and the third is creating a culture where innovation is going to thrive.
“But all of those things take time to build,” she warns. “And it’s challenging, because ultimately when you’re making some kind of disruptive play is involves taking risk – and most executives and leaders are not huge fans of taking risks.”
- Dr Amantha Imber’s TED Talk
- Dr Amantha Imber, talking on how to innovate, and how to solve your customer’s problems
The CMO Show production team
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Transcript: Innovation Culture with Amantha Imber
Hosts: Mark Jones and Nicole Manktelow
Guest: Dr Amantha Imber
Welcome back to the CMO Show, I’m your host Nicole Manktelow.
MJ: And I’m your other host, Mark Jones.
NM: Oh we are delighted today to be talking about culture. Okay, it’s the C word.
MJ: Really, and I other word is the I word, innovation.
NM: Oh, and disruption. Innovation, disruption, they’re not overused words, not by a long shot.
MJ: It’s an interesting conversation because, there is an imperative now for every organisation to think about what’s next in a very serious way, right? So we have operations that are doing the thing, and we’ve got marketing programmes which bring all of our business story into focus, but we also have to be thinking kind of laterally about, if I wasn’t doing this, what else would I be doing?
NM: Well it used to be that your CEO would say to you, “Look, you’re either operations or projects, pick one.” That’s what I’d have, and now, it’s like you’ve got BAU, or you’ve got innovation. It’s sort of the same, choose a side.
MJ: Yeah, and it’s a big deal, particularly for marketers, because where potentially across a lot of these things, so it impacts our go to market, and it impacts about the future, and the stories we tell in the marketplace. So we think this is a very important conversation, and our guest is Dr. Amantha Imber, who’s the Founder and CEO of Inventium. She is an innovation psychologist, and she’s worked with lots of big brands, and we think she’s quite interesting.
NM: Look, she’s actually quite amazing, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen her at a conference. I’ve seen her at a conference where she’s made everybody promise never to use a focus group again. She’s been inducted into the Australian Business Women’s Hall of Fame. She’s an author, co-creator of the AFR’s Innovative Companies List. I mean, she’s got credentials. So when she says she knows how to innovate, and how she can fix somebody’s innovation culture, I think she knows what she’s talking about.
MJ: Let’s hear what she’s got to say.
MJ: If you’ve got a question you’d like us to answer on the show, just tweet us @CMOShow or use the hashtag #TheCMOShow. We’d love to hear from you.
MJ: Thank you for joining us on the CMO show, my name is Mark Jones.
NM: I’m Nicole Manktelow.
MJ: And we have a very special guest, Dr. Amantha Imber, who is an innovation psychologist and a best selling author, and she works at a company called Inventium. Thanks for joining us.
AI: Thanks for having me.
MJ: The first question has to be, innovation psychologist, what is that?
AI: Oh look, an innovation psychologist is basically a psychologist that specialises in innovation research. So I’ve basically dedicated the last decade of my life to understanding what’s been scientifically proven to drive innovation in organisations.
NM: Did you pioneer this particular field yourself? I mean, are you a class of one?
AI: Look, there are psychologists, and researchers, and academics all over the world that are dedicated to this field. I’m probably one of the few academics turned practitioners. I’ve kind of left the academic side quite a while ago, and really what we do at Inventium is we try to make, what can be quite complex and jargon filled science, just make it really practical and simple for companies to actually utilise.
MJ: So you were talking about there being different types of psychologists and so forth. And then you’ve gone into the professional space. I had a question to pick up from there, which was, is your focus on the people, if you like, who are innovating, or are you looking at it from an organisational perspective?
AI: At Inventium we look at it from both perspectives, so we’re certainly looking at people, and looking at how can we turn people into better innovators, given that’s a really malleable skill set. Like it’s easy with the right kind of training and tools, to make someone a better innovator. But we’re also looking at it from an organisation point of view, and thinking about what sort of process do organisations need to drive innovation, and what sort of culture do they need to be creating, to make innovation really thrive.
NM: It is fascinating whenever someone says, innovation and culture, I think bean bags. people have a very fractured view of what that really means. How do you see innovation, innovation as a cultural asset?
AI: Look the images of bean bags, and table tennis tables, and foosballs are kind of one of my peeve points, around people trying to create an innovation culture, because this is a…
NM: I hope we haven’t peeved you, sorry.
AI: No, look I, no not at all, but I mean it’s kind of cliches like that, that people think that if they, you know, insert colourful bean bags in meeting rooms that, that might generate some meaningful innovation culture, but it absolutely doesn’t, certainly in terms of what the science says. So, where companies run into trouble is, if they try to, and look at companies like Google, and Apple, and so forth, and try to sort of funkify their meeting rooms, and think that’s gonna create an innovation culture, it just doesn’t. The science is really helpful here around what to do to create an innovation culture. One of the biggest things we find most organisations, most of our clients need to work on is, creating an environment where, failure is an option. Where it is safe to fail. Because environments that are risk averse, really do kill innovation.
MJ: And you mentioned some great companies. You’ve worked with the like of Coke, and Apple, and Lego, Red Bull, and so on. The thing about these big companies is that, they almost seem impenetrable. Can you give is a sense of the types of innovation? How do they apply this in a concrete way?
AI: It’s really in terms of a concrete way, one of the ways is turning people into better innovators. So this might mean turning people, and teaching them how to be customer detectives. You know, one of the problems that a lot of companies have when it comes to customer research is they conduct what’s called confirmatory research, where people go in, having a bunch of assumptions, and conducting research that basically is just going to support what they think they know. Whereas, good innovators conduct exploratory research, where they’re going in with more open questions, and being truly curious, and being open to what they might find. And training people to conduct more exploratory research, and looking for where are customers’ frustrations and biggest peeve points, can be a really effective way to unlock innovation opportunities, that a lot of companies simply aren’t doing.
NM: When do organisations realise that they need someone like you, and your company Amantha? I mean at what point do you realise, “I need an innovation psychologist?”
AI: It’s a good question, we get approached at all different kinds of stages, but a very common scenario is, the chief executive or managing director has realised that the company needs to be doing a better job of innovating, but they don’t quite know how to do it. And that is often the point where our phone will ring, and we will be brought in, to help them work out how to actually drive innovation. You know, other times, companies call us with sort of fairly abstract requests like, “Help us create a culture of innovation,” which means very different things to different people, but inevitably, we see our job as translating, what does that actually mean in a practical sense, and then helping make that happen.
MJ: We’re still sort of trying to define and lock this down. Nicole and I’ve been business and tech journos for the longest time, and innovation is one of those things that is kind of bandied around, and I think quite frankly, worn out. But I do connect it to another big word, called disruption. And I wonder how…
NM: Oh, he’s got the vocab out today folks.
MJ: I know, I know. But can you connect those two ideas for me, because I feel like actually to your point about CEOs, it can be in response to a perceived threat in the marketplace, so therefore we must innovate. Is that kind of, if you like, the dynamic into which we’re speaking?
AI: I think that’s really fair. I find that companies and executive teams have a need to innovate, or find a need to innovate for one of two reasons. Firstly, they realise that it’s a great way to accelerate growth, and if they’ve got very lofty growth goals and they’re not gonna meet that by just focusing on their core business, then the penny drops that they are either gonna have to make a lot of acquisitions or they need to be doing something differently. That is, innovating. The other reason why companies get the innovation bug is, because they realise that if they don’t innovate, they’re probably going to become irrelevant. So we say, “Look, disrupt or be disrupted.” Like if you are not thinking about how to disrupt in your sector or your industry, then I can guarantee you that your competitors are thinking about that. So, better you disrupt yourself than have someone else do it for you.
MJ: Well let’s connect it to marketing then. How do you apply that in a marketing and comms context? Because for example, there are 7000 Martech companies out there now, providing solutions. There are a million different ways you can slice and dice the marketing budget, and the marketing strategy, so how do you apply it in that context?
AI: So there are a number of ways, but I guess firstly it’s understanding, like on the topic of disruption, what is disruptive innovation? I find it’s a term that gets misused and bandied about. And strictly speaking, what disruption is, and if we look at it from a marketing point of view, or specifically a product point of view, it’s when you create a product or a service that is coming in at the bottom end of a market, servicing a need that was previously unmet and it’s coming in at the lower end, and by that I mean like at generally a price and a quality point of view. Like, if for example we look at how mobile phones disrupted the digital photography market.
AI: I remember, I used to work as a strategist for a very large digital photography company, and this is going back a decade where, they looked at cameras on mobile phones, and they thought, “Well, that’s not a threat. I mean, look how low res and poor quality it is, to take pictures on your phone. Like that’s never gonna be a threat to our beautiful digital cameras that take amazing, beautiful photography,” but you look at where things are at now, and how mobile phones have essentially disrupted the digital camera category, and that’s classic disruption in play. Because it’s coming in at that low end, and specifically there, we’re talking from a quality perspective, it’s why it’s so disruptive.
AI: To take another example, if we look at something like the Prius, which when the Prius launched by Toyota, it was very clear that, that was creating a whole new category in cars. But it wasn’t disruptive as such because it wasn’t coming in at a low end like it was coming in like, I think the pricing was sort of a mainstream premium kind of price point. Everyone knew it was there, and so therefore, it’s not this kind of shock, like when it starts to take all these customers away from you. But with disruptive innovation, because it’s coming in at the low end, and typically, management teams just kind of go, “Well, that’s not a threat. Like look at the poor quality there, that’s never going to impact our market,” but gradually that disruptive player improves its quality and starts slowly eating away at market share, until it’s too late to win back that market share that you’ve lost. So that’s why it’s so disruptive.
MJ: Well what’s interesting about those two examples and what you’re highlighting, taps into your psychology research here I presume, because it seems to me there’s an element of denial in those stories.
NM: Well people are always optimistic, aren’t they? It’s always gonna work out well.
AI: Absolutely, yeah.
MJ: It’s always on both sides of the coin.
AI: There’s denial and there’s fear, I’d say they’re very interrelated. I mean, if you look at Kodak as another example, who invented digital photography. That invention came from within Kodak. And obviously we know what’s happened to Kodak now. But you can probably imagine how that conversation went down with management. You know, “What’s that, you’ve invented something that’s going to destroy our most profitable business, like ink and printing and paper? Lock that away in the cupboard, and let’s never talk about that again.” But of course, well we know what happened to Kodak.
NM: Well you can’t kill a good idea. It’ll come back eventually.
AI: Yeah, hopefully though, it sticks with the company that invented it rather than one of your competitors coming back with it.
NM: Well to that end, how do you make a company better at innovation from an organisational point of view? You said before making it safe to fail. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say, a one day hackathon may not be the answer.
AI: Definitely might not be in isolation. Look, for a company that’s in the beginning of their innovation journey, there are really three things, or arguably four things that they need to focus on. The first is, having a clear innovation strategy. If you don’t know where exactly you want to focus your innovation efforts, you better figure that out. Because a lot of companies, and certainly a lot of marketing teams, waste a lot of times with things like Blue Sky Workshops, where they get a group of people together in a room, and they go, “Let’s just dream up some new ideas, no idea’s a bad idea. There’s no limits or constraints here.” And that’s really bad because you just end up wasting so many resources of coming up with ideas that are completely off strategy, and not even linked to strategy. So you need a clear strategy of where you’re gonna focus your efforts, and making sure that you’re balancing your efforts between innovating the core business, and also pursuing more disruptive and breakthrough innovation.
AI: Second, you wanna be focusing on having a clear innovation process. So where companies really fall down here, is that they think innovation process starts with generating ideas. But, if you start with the generation of ideas, you can often completely miss what matters to the customer and produce ideas that no one values or cares about. So having an organisation-wide innovation process is absolutely key. And what I don’t mean here is a stage gate process, which a lot of marketers would be familiar with, that’s okay for the back end, but that is not an innovation process per se.
AI: The third thing, you need to create a culture where innovation is gonna thrive, and there are several elements there that are important. And the final thing is around building capability, because most people are not natural born innovators, so you need to teach them how to be effective and successful innovators. So really, to start with you need a strategy, you need a process, you need the right kind of culture, and you need capability. And all those things take time to build.
MJ: It’s interesting to contrast this sustainable innovation process that you’re talking about, with the general operations of the business. It seems like there are, you know, two streams, and we’re saying, “What you need to do is bring on,” or if you like, “Tap into the existing passion of the team, you know? Bring around these people, bring these people around you, and create, if you like, two streams of focus within the business.”
MJ:One is just keep the existing thing running, get this other team up and focused on how to disrupt the status quo. How difficult is that as a proposition for business leaders?
AI: It’s really challenging, because ultimately when you’re trying to make some kind of a disruptive play that involves taking risk, and most executives and leaders that I know are not huge fans of taking a risk. So, then what you need to be looking at and thinking about is, how can you make the innovation process as unrisky as possible? So something we work with a lot of our clients on, is helping introduce an experimentation stage into their innovation process. So once you have an idea, what tends to happen in marketing departments, is there’s this over reliance on focus group testing, and, you know, various screening tests that are really a poor gauge of how something is going to perform in market. Because most of those types of testing that are currently being done, are purely testing people’s intentions. So what they say they will do.
AI: 18:50 So if you’re running a focus group, where you’re testing reactions to a new product, or the effectiveness of a new comms campaign for example, and you’re like, “So, do you think you would buy this product in market?” Or, “Do you think this campaign would encourage you to do X, Y, or Z?” That’s essentially asking people, you know, “What do you reckon you’d do?” And people saying, “Here’s what I think I’d do.” And people are really bad at predicting how they will act in the future. So, what we do with our clients is we train them in how to be better experimenters, where we can set up experiments where we’re actually testing behaviour. So for example, how many people are actually going to click the buy now button, rather than just say they’re gonna click the buy now button. So that’s really important methodology to have as part of your innovation process, and ultimately makes things a whole lot less risky, because you’re testing it on a small scale and you’re testing actual behaviour, and you’re doing that really quickly and cheaply. Like you might be running an experiment over a few days, and spending a few hundred dollars for example.
NM: That sounds almost reasonable. That sounds like any company could actually adopt such a thing.
AI: Oh absolutely.
NM: Are you surprised, I mean are your clients surprised when they realise that they don’t need an enormous team to put something like this in place?
AI: Oh they absolutely are, yeah, yeah. Oh we kind of have two reactions. One reaction is, “Oh my goodness why, why has it taken us so long to learn this methodology,” and then there are some that think, “Hang on, this is too good to be true,” and then they try it and they run some experiments, and they understand that, this is the way to do things. I mean why would you bother testing intentions when you can test behaviour really quickly, and really cheaply, and get a far more accurate picture of how something’s gonna perform in market.
NM: We’re talking about this innovation as a process, and you’re talking about how easy it can be, how then do you judge companies as being most innovative, and I’m asking this because I know that you’re one of the Founders of the AFR’s Most Innovative Companies List, I do kind of want to know what that means. How do you value someone and their innovativeness?
AI: Yeah, it’s a great question, and for the AFR Most Innovative Companies List, which we’ve been running for, I think seven years now, we look at a number of factors. So we’re certainly looking at what has actually been produced by the company, so what is their innovation output? Companies need to describe their most innovative and impactful idea, that they’ve implemented in the last 12 months, and we’re also exploring, what has that company done internally, to really have innovation be something that is sustainable, as distinct from innovation being a one hit wonder, that just kind of got lucky with something, but actually doesn’t have like the scaffolding in place internally to support innovation in more of a sustainable manner.
NM: I’m looking at the companies that you’ve done work for, which is somebody’s dream CV if you must, Google, and Apple, and all those guys, Disney, Coca Cola, and Lego seems to me, almost to be the odd one out. What did you do for Lego?
AI: So Lego was a few years ago, where we went over to their head office in Denmark and worked with one of their product development team, and actually gave them some practical tools around, how could they think differently about problems, and think more creatively. So we find that this is not unusual. We find that with a lot of creative teams, they still struggle from whatever their version of writer’s block is, because no one’s ever actually taught them, like when you need to think creatively, you need to do it right now, how do you do that? And so we find that when we work with, so called creative teams, and give them really practical strategies that they can use when they are struggling with a brief or a problem, we can get quite amazing results. So that was what we did with Lego, and look, that mirrors a lot of what of so called creative teams.
MJ: It’s fascinating to think about that creative process, and I wonder if we think about, for example, in our context, we’re doing a lot of work around data driven storytelling, so we’re looking at, what can analytics teach us about the audience, about the type of content we should be writing. We often like to say, what are the technologies, or what are the you know disrupters that are out there, but I think in your case you’re talking about, where does the inspiration come from, because you’re applying a framework to a way of thinking. Can you kind of help us with the best sources of creative inspiration? The best places to find those ideas that make a difference?
AI: Well ultimately, you need to understand your customer. Like there’s no point getting inspired by a really fascinating podcast, or a great TED talk, or an amazing book, unless you’re connected in with the customer. So that really is where you need to start. And combining that with understanding, what’s the strategy of your organisation, or the strategy of your marketing department. What are the big problems that you’re trying to solve, and making sure they’re aligned to what matters to the customer. And then, once you’re clear on that, that’s where inspiration can be fantastic.
AI: So look, I know for myself personally, listening to a pretty wide variety of podcasts is one way that I can get a lot of inspiration, and certainly I’m a voracious reader, I probably read one or two books a week, along with journal articles as well, and just kind of getting lost in the sort of the web of the internet in interesting articles and blogs I can find. So that’s kind of what I do for myself personally, but ultimately, you need to understand the customer, and you need to make sure that what you’re understanding about the customer and the problems you’re identifying that needs solving also link back to your organization’s strategy.
MJ: And you do that before you have your great big brainstorming session.
AI: Oh yes, yes that is critical. Otherwise, you are wasting time in that brainstorm.
MJ: Which seems to me, a nice tie into NPS, which of course is Net Promoter Score. Is that a thing for you? Is that an outcome, because I guess I’m thinking about how we measure innovation, how do we understand that this is actually having an impact.
AI: Look it’s such a great question, because I think most companies expect quick financial returns on an innovation investment, but that’s not always gonna be the case. And your financial return might actually be saving a whole lot of money, if you’ve got a really quick and lean innovation process. Like for example, if you’re using experimentation, rather than large scale pilots, or just launching ideas that have performed well in focus group testing, and you find in like quick and dirty experiments that, “Hang on, this idea is not adding value to customers,” or, “This campaign is not changing behaviour in the way we need it to,” then you can save literally millions of dollars through not going down really ineffective paths. So innovation certainly saves you money, it certainly makes you money, once you find that product market fit.
AI: But also, like NPS is a great example, and I mean like, customer and brand measures are great examples of more of those intangible kind of returns, if you like, that obviously lead to financial returns when you’re looking at how successful your innovation efforts have been.
MJ: I like it. we might wrap it up there. We like to do the rapid fire round of questions, so what are you grateful for?
AI: I would say just basic things like my health and happiness, and my family’s health. Incredibly grateful on a daily basis.
MJ: In the movie of your life, who would play you?
AI: Many years ago, many, many years ago, I used to constantly get told I looked like Alanis Morissette, so you know maybe, maybe her. If you remember who that is.
MJ: Yes we do.
NM: That’s cool. I do, and I’m impressed. Who’s your hero?
AI: Look, I would have to say Lin Manuel Miranda, the creator of Hamilton. I’m a little bit obsessed, I think it’s fair to say.
MJ: Very nice. If you were not an innovation psychologist, what would you be?
AI: Look, if I was a triple threat, if I could sing, dance, and act, I would be on Broadway right now.
NM: That would make you a slashy right? Singer slash, dancer-
AI: Totally would, yes.
AI: In the context of innovation? People paying lip service to it. Frustrates me on a daily basis.
NM: What’s the last conference you went to?
AI: TED, in Vancouver a few weeks ago.
MJ: And to wrap it up, if you had to change your first name, what would you change it to? Because you’ve got a very interesting first name.
AI: I might possibly change it to Samantha, so I don’t have to repeat myself every day for the rest of my life, as to what my name actually is.
MJ: Very nice, I can understand that being a thing. Well Amantha Imber, thank you so much for joining us on the programme. It’s been great to hear a bit about innovation psychology and the process and-
NM: Oh my God, it’s so good to hear about all the things that I’ve been doing that I shouldn’t be doing, like thinking about ideas first. Hello. Thanks for the reality check. Also, I’m never going to suggest a focus group again.
MJ: We’ve learned a lot and we appreciate your time, so thank you very much.
AI: No worries, thanks for having me.
MJ: There we have Dr. Amantha Imber.
NM: I’m actually a little bit cut, because you can’t start off with just having a whole bunch of ideas spewing out all over the place. Who knew we actually need a programme first?
NM: Guilty, yes.
MJ: That’s kind of hard work. Can I tell you what I got out of it? She made this point about customer first, right? So how well do you know your customer, and as an old publishing journo guy, how well do you know your audience, right? So how well do you know why you’re doing this. It’s the great why question.
NM: She was saying, don’t be full of assumptions about your customers. Don’t go off and try and find the proof of the thing that you already suspect, but actually be a detective. She’s talking about some empirical science techniques going on there.
MJ: I agree, and then actually just, I started writing out a process. I’ve become very process oriented lately but, anyways it’s just-
NM: I know.
MJ: … she says with a groan. Tough luck. So, we got the understand your customer, then you’ve got this innovation process she spoke about. So how do you get the process up and running? And then there’s this question of evaluation, and we spoke about NPS and other scores, other ways of deciding as an organisation, how are you gonna measure the impact of your organisation, so that’s kind of like a one, two, three.
NM: I think that’s a terrific piece of advice.
MJ: So there it is, that’s it for this episode check us out on the web, on our website, Facebook.
NM: Give us some feedback. If you’ve got someone you think we need to talk to, you know, batter up.
MJ: Yes that’s right, we’re always happy to get some suggestions on who to speak to, and as always, tell your friends about us, and make sure you check us out next time. Thanks very much.
NM: See you later.
MJ: The CMO Show is a podcast produced by Filtered Media and a quick shoutout to our incredible team Candice Witton, Charlotte Goodwin, Ewan Miller and Yael Brender.
NM: And our engineering wizards: Tom Henderson and Daniel Marr.