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Since 1991, Maddock Douglas has been providing its clients with the fresh thinking, innovation and diverse expertise to envision the future and build toward it.
This webinar focuses on Aaron’s book, Today’s Innovator, and highlights Aaron's experiences in the innovation industry. He gives great advice on how to help innovation thrive in organizations that aren't designed for it.
Watch the webinar replay below, or read the transcript.
The video is also available on Vimeo.
Upset the Status Quo - Webinar Transcript
Ryan Silhavy: Good morning, everyone. Welcome to today's webinar hosted by Maddock Douglas, an insights-driven, growth consultancy, with deep expertise in innovation, strategy, research and training. Today we are speaking with Aaron Proietti, an innovation expert and author of a new book called Today's Innovator, that's a fabulous coaching guide for anyone who is looking to be a part of innovation efforts at their company.
Ryan Silhavy: As we know, sustainable innovation in a complex organization can be super nebulous and extremely challenging and Aaron does an awesome job demystifying what innovation really is and explaining the foundational components necessary to build a mature innovation capability within your own company. With that, I'd love to have you tell everyone about yourself, Aaron.
Aaron Proietti: Yeah. Thanks, Ryan. Again, my name is Aaron Proietti. I was an innovator inside of corporate and complex organizations for about 17 years. That included stints at Capital One, a startup company named Heritage Union, as well as Transamerica, a sleepy, stuffy insurance company.
Aaron Proietti: My goal at Transamerica was to make it less sleepy and stuffy through creating a culture of innovation. That's where I learned a lot of the hard lessons about innovation and the fact that innovation is hard, it's challenging, it's not linear. All you can do is set yourself up for success or improve your odds of success but there's no right or wrong way to do innovation.
Aaron Proietti: I left corporate America in 2016. I like to say I hung up my corporate cleats. I don't expect to be going back. I took about a year to coach soccer but then after that I saw myself ... I continued to come back to innovation and the themes that I had built my career around. I was writing for an innovation magazine and I did a piece on the 11 biggest barriers to innovation.
Aaron Proietti: After I finished that I took a look at what I had and I said, "You know what? This is a book." I just put all the ingredients together and simply reorganize this into a book. The last year I've spent actually writing Today's Innovator and getting that published and that's been a pretty big challenge.
Ryan Silhavy: That's awesome. That's awesome. Yeah, innovation itself is no easy feat and certainly writing a book about the complexities of innovation is no easy feat. Can you give the audience a little bit of information about what prompted you to write this book? What was it that you had to tell the world about in writing this?
Aaron Proietti: Yeah. You know, people had told me for some time that I should write a book and I held off, held off, held off because I didn't have an edge. I didn't have an angle. There's dozens of books about innovation process and there will be dozens, if not hundreds, more that follow. I had to have something unique.
Aaron Proietti: When I finally kind of got onto it, it was about creating the environment where innovation can thrive inside of a complex organization, which is clinging to its status quo. One of the titles that I flirted with was the title for this webinar, which was Upset The Status Quo.
Aaron Proietti: Essentially the innovator's job is to work outside of what the business does well and to upset the status quo and that can be really exhausting for an innovator. I wanted to show the readers that if they were hitting up against resistance, if they were fighting barriers and politics, that they were doing the right things.
Aaron Proietti: That's the interesting angle that I finally came up with and decided to take.
Ryan Silhavy: Absolutely. Actually that brings up a great point in the book that you talk about if you're not meeting resistance you're not actually upsetting the status quo, you're living right there square in the center of the status quo. I thought that was an awesome point.
Ryan Silhavy: We're definitely going to come back to that in a second but before we launch into more about what it means to upset the status quo one of the things that you talk about early on in the book is this mystical nature of innovation. Everybody talks about it but there's not really this common understanding of what it actually means. First of all, I'd love you to tell us a little about what you feel innovation means.
Aaron Proietti: Yeah. You're right. It's nebulous, it's ambiguous, it's mystical.
Ryan Silhavy: Yup.
Aaron Proietti: I don't think the typical layperson realizes that. It's only when you get to a position where you're expected to innovate that you suddenly realize that everyone has different expectations of what innovation actually is.
Aaron Proietti: I actually got the title of chief innovation officer before I had a good working definition of innovation. Indeed after that it took me almost another two years to come up with a good working definition of innovation.
Ryan Silhavy: That's great. Fake it until you make it though, right?
Aaron Proietti: That's right. What I realized was it had to be relatable and accessible to everyone who was coming up against innovation, who was interacting with innovation inside the organization. Some expected it to be an outcome, it was a product or it was a service or it was a technology. Others thought it was a department or a team or a person or a set of people.
Aaron Proietti: Ultimately where I landed was that innovation is a competency. By defining it as a competency you can talk about it as how an organization overcomes a challenge and in the very specific case of innovation it's about overcoming the everyday aggressive pace of change in the world.
Aaron Proietti: As consumer expectations change, as technology landscape changes, as the business constraints and challenges change, the organizations' competency for reacting to that change that defines its innovativeness.
Ryan Silhavy: That's awesome.
Aaron Proietti: It took me a while.
Ryan Silhavy: Well, one of the things that strikes me about it is that it's deliberately un-sexy as compared with a lot of innovation definitions that you hear out there but that's very deliberate as you talk about in the book. Can you give a little bit of color about why you've dumbed it down to ... Not dumbed it down but distilled it into this sort of un-sexy description.
Aaron Proietti: Yeah. Like you're kind of alluding to there's this notion that innovation is about invention, it's this sexy thing where you have some creative genius who's working up some concoction and is going to save the company, right?
Ryan Silhavy: Right.
Aaron Proietti: Everyone wants to be involved in that project, which saves the company. The reality is that innovation is very challenging and you're going to meet resistance and the actual operationalization of innovation or the institutionalization of innovation is the most challenging thing that you're going to face.
Aaron Proietti: Maybe by putting lipstick on the definition of it you're actually doing it a disservice because the innovators are going to have a really hard time gaining traction in the organization.
Aaron Proietti: I didn't want it to be attached to the sexy notion of innovation that you're talking about. It really is an organizational competency and it's one that many, many organizations struggle with.
Ryan Silhavy: Absolutely. I love that reframing of it because that in and of itself is sort of innovation on the term innovation. Why do you think it is so challenging for organizations to get on the same page? By their common understanding of what innovation means for their specific situation.
Aaron Proietti: Yeah. There's almost a paradox where the business leaders who decide that innovation is important to a business want a different result. When they say that they want innovation they're saying, "I need a different business result."
Aaron Proietti: They want it to work within the same confines of the business and the problem is any system is perfectly designed to achieve the results it gets. To get a different business result inside of the same system is really, really challenging.
Aaron Proietti: The innovators their job is to actually be on the front lines of change and they have to change the organization's culture, their approach to the business, their approach to how they solve problems, and by manipulating all of that they can finally achieve a different business result but that is the actual hard work.
Aaron Proietti: Gaining traction on the change ... No one ever taught me this either but that's the part where it's going to make or break who is a great innovator is whether or not you can change the organization and ultimately change the outcome. That paradox where organizations want it both ways, right? They want to have their cake and eat it too. They want to be innovative and stay the same and preserve the same culture that they have. It just can't be done.
Ryan Silhavy: Absolutely. What do you think is the biggest or are the biggest challenges in making those shifts? What are the biggest road blocks that somebody might encounter?
Aaron Proietti: Yeah. I'd maybe boil it down to two. One is the assumption that innovation is linear, that it's simple, that you can instill a process and go through a process and at the end have an in-market success from innovation.
Aaron Proietti: Because that is often the assumption that innovation is some sort of discipline or some sort of process that people can follow that comes out of the other end, it has something successful at the other end, that is what the innovators will be battling is that assumption that they're doing everything and it's going to achieve some sort of result.
Aaron Proietti: When in fact the world is complex. I've found as an innovator that the conditions around me were always changing. When I set off to try to solve one business problem within the course of a month a new bigger business problem had hit me upside the head and I had to now consider that or a new regulatory challenge or a new business challenge is pulling resources away.
Aaron Proietti: The process was breaking down, the assumptions were breaking down, and we had to continually rework what we were trying to achieve. I guess the assumption that innovation is easy or that innovation is linear can be one big challenge.
Aaron Proietti: The other one is organizational values. An organization that is traditional, that has a very technical output or an operational output, has a certain set of values, maybe around quality or maybe around speed, that will bump up against the innovator's values.
Aaron Proietti: Innovators are often chosen because they have a different value set than the rest of the organization. Someone sees something in you and says, "Hey, you know how to work differently. I'm going to put you in an innovation role." Then suddenly you're hitting up against all of the organizational values, which keep the organization in its status quo.
Aaron Proietti: That's not necessarily a bad thing, right? Organizations are good at what they do and they can preserve and hold onto their competitive edge by preserving their status quo but as soon as the innovator is asked to work differently they're being asked to compete with the organization's values and that can be really challenging when you don't know what you're hitting up against.
Ryan Silhavy: Totally. Yeah. That's a really, really great insightful comment there. I love that you talk so much about empathy and values in the book and about the just critical nature of having both in spades. Do you want to discuss a little bit more about what you mean by values and then why empathy is so important in this broad context?
Aaron Proietti: Yeah. Sure. I think we all know what stated organizational values are. We see them in any building you walk into. You see them hung up on banners or on mouse pads if people still have mouse pads. People are wearing t-shirts that have the stated organizational values. "We're going to solve customer problems" or, "We're going to be cutting edge." Whatever those values are they're on banners.
Aaron Proietti: I'm reminded of the movie Office Space where it's hanging above the sea of cubicles that says, "Initiative plus technology equals Initech". You get your values right there. They value initiative and technology. Those are the traditional stated values of an organization.
Aaron Proietti: Unfortunately, the real values of an organization often differ from the stated values. The real values can be measured by if you look at who gets rewarded in the organization, who gets let go, and you attach stories or narratives to those outcomes then you start to uncover what the real values of the organization are. Wherever there's a disconnect then an organization gets really confused because employees are seeing one thing but they're hearing something else. That's very common, right?
Ryan Silhavy: Sure.
Aaron Proietti: Innovators then are asked to bring this new set of values, not stated, not real, but aspirational, which is what is the organization trying to become. Suddenly you have three values frameworks, which are being introduced into an organization. That can get really muddied and confusing.
Ryan Silhavy: Yeah.
Aaron Proietti: This is where empathy comes in as you have to meet the organization where it is. To understand where it is you have to ask questions and sit with the employees and listen to the stories and that's the empathetic muscle that you need to build as an innovator so that you can move an organization from where it is to that aspirational state of where it needs to be, which is nimble, responsive, agile. You've got to get it to that point. You're not just going to be able to introduce those words as new stated values and see transformation. Empathy is required to make that move.
Ryan Silhavy: Then at the end of the day how do you even inspire people to have the willingness to change, let alone to actually go through the process of change? That's a super challenging situation there.
Ryan Silhavy: Previous conversations that you and I have had and then just in the book you alluded to the fact that you're a pretty introverted guy and that wasn't something that came super naturally to you. Can you tell us a little about how you first started on all of this and then how you grew through the process?
Aaron Proietti: Yeah. When I initially got the job, my corporate dream job of chief innovation officer, I at that time was very introverted. That's how I showed up in the workplace as well. I didn't know how to put on the performance of not being introverted.
Aaron Proietti: There's a funny story. A coach of mine who was helping me develop this chief innovation officer role she heard a story that there were people outside of my office that sat within 20 feet, within a stone's throw, that I didn't know who they were, what their names were, or what they worked on because of my introversion. I would get to the office every day, go in, close the door, and try to be the puppet master for my organization [crosstalk 00:15:02]
Ryan Silhavy: Sure.
Aaron Proietti: Closed door in front of a computer monitor on the phone. That just wouldn't cut it. She challenged me to get out to meet the people outside of my office and try to actually connect with them on a real human level beyond just this professional thing but really try to understand what challenges they're dealing with and try to establish who I was.
Aaron Proietti: Ultimately, that conversation started my transformation as a leader and I had to learn and surround myself with people who challenged me to be a better leader. One of the biggest lessons I learned was if I wasn't thinking about leading I wasn't leading. I suppose for someone who is very extroverted, who knows how to show up in front of a crowd, who knows what's expected of them in a meeting, leadership might come easy but for me it did not.
Aaron Proietti: My notion of leadership was, "You know what? I trust people to get things done." Leaving them alone because I didn't want to have the conflict, I didn't want to learn how to interact with them because the introvert doesn't like to do those things.
Ryan Silhavy: Absolutely.
Aaron Proietti: I had to learn that hard lesson if you're not thinking about leading, you're not leading.
Ryan Silhavy: It's just exercising that empathy muscle over and over again. What kinds of things did you do at least initially to get over that hurdle?
Aaron Proietti: Yeah. I thought back to a mentor of mine ... I didn't even mention this role earlier but I worked at a summer camp when I was in college. I had a very challenging summer at a summer camp where I was 21 years old and I was running the whole show.
Ryan Silhavy: Oh, wow. Yeah.
Aaron Proietti: The vice president of the Y came down and he gave this talk to all of the staff and afterwards I said, "You know what? That was pretty interesting. I'm having a really tough time here. This is going to be a challenging summer." He said something to me that I'll never forget. He said, "Every day is a performance."
Aaron Proietti: It was only after 20 years or 15 years when I was sitting there and I actually needed to exercise that mantra that I realized how valuable that was and I started to come into the office every day and ask myself ... These questions are in my book, the three critical questions.
Aaron Proietti: One of them, who does the organization need me to be? It wasn't sufficient ... In the role that I was in and the person who I was, it wasn't sufficient just to be myself. Everyone tells you your whole life it's okay to just be yourself but in this case it wasn't. I had to ask myself every day who does the organization need me to be and maybe meet myself halfway towards becoming that person that the organization needed me to be.
Aaron Proietti: That was the one mantra that kept me every day attuned to what was going on around me. If I didn't know the answer to that question I could ask people. How do I need to show up to this meeting? Do I really need to be there? What support do you need from me to succeed? When I got the answers to those questions I was a much more informed leader.
Ryan Silhavy: Got it. That's so helpful. I would imagine that as somebody who is a chief innovation officer or really anybody charged with innovation at their company ultimately you're asking the company to step outside of its comfort zone to upset the status quo and so you yourself need to be willing to make those steps personally in order to also be in lockstep with that. Very interesting.
Ryan Silhavy: Then of course you have the mathematics background as well. Mathematics is all pretty linear, very problem solving-oriented, there's usually a clearly defined solution or at least a right answer. Innovation not so much, though. You said earlier so much more nebulous and fuzzy. How did your math background help or hinder you in this process?
Aaron Proietti: Yeah. By the end of my career I didn't use my math background at all.
Ryan Silhavy: Okay.
Aaron Proietti: As an innovator, it was not something that I counted on to get me through the day. In fact, that's a funny thing about innovators. They come from all walks. Really, the common thread amongst successful innovators is their curiosity, their willingness to challenge the status quo, their never say die attitude when faced with challenges. That's the common thread and that has nothing to do with what you studied in college.
Ryan Silhavy: Yeah. It sure doesn't.
Aaron Proietti: Early on, I guess I got my confidence doing an innovation project at Capital One that was very mathematically-oriented. I was working in the small business arm of Capital One and we had to build a new credit risk model to help decision which credit cards should be approved.
Ryan Silhavy: Okay.
Aaron Proietti: I used my mathematics background to take the lead on that project and build a new statistical model to help understand new data sources and how they fit together and what were the most reliable ways to fit those ... I was able to use that pattern recognition and problem solvability there and that gave me I guess the empowerment to ...
Aaron Proietti: I felt so comfortable and so confident of the stuff that I was working on that I could then stretch myself to learn how to put that risk model in strategic context, how to negotiate the politics of the organization to get them to appreciate the complexities of the model, to get them to accept the risk that was in the model so I could focus on some of the other innovation stuff that I would continue to build throughout the rest of my career.
Aaron Proietti: I guess I used that mathematics background in innovation very early and any expert can do the same thing. I think that's where you get the taste for innovation is when you are a technical expert asked to innovate and you get to thrive in that technical expertise but that's not going to get you to innovation leadership. That's for sure.
Ryan Silhavy: Right. Right. Exactly. Yeah. Then you have to bring in all of the elements of storytelling and actually being able to motivate people to change and all of that. I know you just mentioned innovation leadership, which is let's dive into that a little bit here.
Ryan Silhavy: You talk about the four levels of innovation maturity in today's innovator. It seems like strong leadership is obviously an enormously critical component of that. What makes somebody a successful innovation leader? What separates a good innovation leader from a great innovation leader?
Aaron Proietti: Yeah. I guess when organizations are just starting out when the innovation is ad hoc or what I call in the book dysfunctional there isn't any assumption that there is an innovation leader. The innovation leader is the person who is tapped on the shoulder and told, "Go innovate". That's where most innovation and stuff has to start is someone getting tapped on the shoulder and told, "You and these two other people, you're in charge of innovation. Now go figure it out."
Aaron Proietti: The way that you gain traction, the way that you grow as an innovation leader is to focus on six traits that I highlight in the book. I'll try some of these off the top of my head before I have to look them up.
Aaron Proietti: First and foremost is the ability to build high performing teams and to recognize that innovation is not a creative genius exercise but it requires a multi-disciplinary approach of people who are recruited in and invited in and enlisted to be part of some sort of innovation effort.
Aaron Proietti: It's the innovation leader who is bringing these people in and inviting them in and establishing that team and then creating the environment where they're high performing, where nothing gets in their way, where they know how to work through conflict intention. That kind of goes directly into another one.
Aaron Proietti: A great innovation leader knows how to build strong innovation networks. They know how to look inside of the organization as well as outside of the organization for the right types of problem solving ability, the right types of technical expertise and coaching along the way.
Aaron Proietti: They're really good at setting clear expectations, which is one of the biggest breakdowns for innovation is when someone believes that the innovation team is doing X but the innovation team is really doing Y. It's because that innovation leader hasn't set the right expectation. They have to set the expectation both for the organization as well as for the team around what needs to be accomplished and by when or what is expected to be accomplished by when.
Aaron Proietti: Accountability is a big one. Being accountable not only to the organization, so you're committed to innovating for the organization, but to your own personal word. Innovation leaders will say a lot of things like, "I've got your back" or, "We're going to invite all these people in and we're going to have this great party around innovation". You have to follow-up on that. You have to actually do what you say you're going to do. That gets harder and harder as you get higher and higher and commit to doing more and more.
Ryan Silhavy: Absolutely.
Aaron Proietti: We talked about empathy so leading change empathetically is an innovation leader's role because innovation by its definition is the ability to deal with change. You're going to be leading change. What you don't want to do is leave a trail of bodies in your wake. Right? You want to be very empathetic to the people who you are trying to change, the systems you're trying to change, and make sure you understand where they are.
Aaron Proietti: I'm looking for my last one here. Oh, building empowered employees is the last trait that sets an innovation leader apart. The ability to ... I say this in the book but empowerment is not a magic wand. I can't wave a magic wand and say, "Ryan, you're empowered. Go do this."
Ryan Silhavy: Sure.
Aaron Proietti: Empowerment is a feeling that you have to have. The comfort level of taking risks that you have to have and the only thing a leader does is setup the environment where people can start to feel empowered. The best leaders are the ones who know how to setup that environment that allows people to take risks and become stronger, more empowered employees.
Ryan Silhavy: It kind of sounds like based on what you've said in the book that once you have those systems in place and once you have that ecosystem it becomes much easier to sustain that. Of course, there are pitfalls in falling back on old habits but hopefully you get that forward momentum and are able to remain highly mature in your innovation capacity.
Ryan Silhavy: The one thing that you said too as you were talking about what makes a strong leader is regarding setting clear expectations, which is sort of at odds with innovation itself, which is sort of this fuzzy, nebulous thing. What would be your recommendation on helping leaders setup these clear expectations even in the midst of ambiguity?
Aaron Proietti: Yeah. You know, maybe this is the highest bar possible and I believe it might be but I always held myself [crosstalk 00:25:52]
Ryan Silhavy: It's a two-for. Yup. That's right.
Aaron Proietti: The organization should hold innovation accountable to achieving its objectives. The organization's objectives.
Ryan Silhavy: Got it.
Aaron Proietti: If the organization is not achieving its objectives, innovation is not functioning properly. There was always this ... Again, it's a very high bar that creates a new environment that people maybe aren't used to but the innovators have to be connected to what the organization is trying to accomplish and that's the clear expectation is the organization is here today, it needs to be up here. Innovation is the gap. Right?
Ryan Silhavy: Right.
Aaron Proietti: If innovation is not solving that gap nothing will.
Ryan Silhavy: Sure.
Aaron Proietti: If we are not able to get the organization to that higher level then innovation is not doing its job. In terms of setting the expectations of the employees who are expected to innovate that's the high bar I set. I told them if the organization is not achieving what its objectives are you're not doing your job. You're not attentive enough to what's going on around you. You're not connected enough to the strategy. You don't understand enough the role of innovation in the organization.
Aaron Proietti: That's the expectation I would set for the team but then on the outside for the political environment I would set the expectation of, "You know what? We're just tinkering here. Give us some time. We need to figure this all out."
Aaron Proietti: Being able to balance those. Politically, get the people on the inside charged and motivated and then outside reduce the expectations of innovation at least in the short-term.
Ryan Silhavy: Absolutely. That's awesome. I would like to start wrapping it up just because we have about two and a half minutes left. Unfortunately. That's my biggest regret here. I feel like we could go for another four to seven hours.
Aaron Proietti: I could talk all day.
Ryan Silhavy: Totally. I think we'll need to give some people bathroom breaks if we do that. Yeah, if we can get another one setup we'll certainly go for longer next time.
Ryan Silhavy: That being said, there are probably a lot of people out there who know their organization needs to change and to grow but maybe have analysis paralysis on where to get started, just how to dip the toe in the water, and get going. For all of those people who are struggling out there what would be your main takeaway from Today's Innovator? What do you really, really want them to know as they're going forth with innovation efforts in their own companies?
Aaron Proietti: Yeah. When you're feeling the resistance, when you're feeling that feeling of, "Oh my gosh. I don't know if this is doable" that's the right feeling. It's tough but if you're feeling comfortable, if you're feeling satisfied you're probably not pushing the limits of innovation enough.
Aaron Proietti: First of all, it's going to take ... Be appreciative that you're feeling that because that's what innovators should feel. You should always be on edge, you should always wonder if your solutions are good enough, you should always wonder about what should I be doing next? Those are the questions if you find the answer to them they're going to make you a great innovator.
Aaron Proietti: Fall in love with those questions that you're asking and seek out answers and seek them out from experts who have done this before. Buy books. Bring consultants in to talk to you about what you should be doing. You don't have to listen to all of them but they're going to give you useful advice about what you can be doing, what you should be doing.
Aaron Proietti: If you're just sitting at your desk, you don't have access to those resources, then get on innovation webinars and start looking at what other people are doing. I think you'll start to see that there's some common patterns there and stuff that you can bring in that will make the organization more comfortable with innovation.
Ryan Silhavy: Awesome. That was great. I really, really appreciate your time today, Aaron. Everybody, just a reminder, Today's Innovator. It's out now. Correct?
Aaron Proietti: January 16th.
Ryan Silhavy: Oh, January 16th. Okay.
Aaron Proietti: It's available for pre-sale right now on Amazon.
Ryan Silhavy: Perfect. All right. Well, everybody go grab yourself a copy before this bad boy sells out. Otherwise, we wish you an excellent day, Aaron. If anybody out there has any questions please reach out to Aaron directly or if you have Maddock-Douglas-specific questions feel free to reach out to us. As always, wonderful to speak with you and we wish you all the best, Aaron.
Aaron Proietti: Yeah. Thanks, Ryan. This was a thrill. Best way to get a hold of me is firstname.lastname@example.org, pretty easy.
Ryan Silhavy: Perfect.
Aaron Proietti: Yeah. I look forward to any questions that people have that were unanswered here.
Ryan Silhavy: Excellent. Excellent. Well, thank you so much for your time today.
Aaron Proietti: All right. Thank you, Ryan.
Ryan Silhavy: All right. Bye bye.
Aaron Proietti: Bye bye.
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