How I Structure Innovation
The assumption that inspiration only requires people in a room and a conversation is completely false. To channel inspiration and bring innovation to a company, you need a logical structure and organization. As CEO of Merisant, which produces sweeteners like Equal, I try to focus our efforts. I sit people down and control the conversation. We first discuss what we think is possible–a general brainstorm. Then we talk about our exact opportunities, everything from distribution mechanics to packaging ideas. This helps turn those possibilities into realities.
The best innovation comes from a view of the future. I don’t like to wait for change or wait until I really need it. Too many people think, ‘Well, when the market changes, I’ll change with it.’ So I like my people to spend time just imagining the future. Not useless dreaming exactly, but constructive thoughts. I tell them to think about what the office would be like if someone teleported them 20 years ahead. What products do we make? What markets are we in? Anyone can extract inspiration this way. An entrepreneur interested in retail might imagine how many stores he has two decades from now. Say he envisions 20 stores. Then he starts to work backward. How did I get 20 stores? How did I get 15 stores? And so on. When you write down what you see in that future and how you got there, make sure you record every detail.
This method of peering into the future and deciding what it looks like worked for me at Dannon. The company was built on yogurt. I wanted to diversify our products. I looked ahead, and decided we needed to move toward bottled water. The board initially resisted this idea. I won them over, and after the water spent eight months on the market, it went to No. 1 in market share.
If you’re successful at innovation, then your company grows. Sometimes it grows so fast, you don’t know what to do. Growth can mean headaches, and in many ways, it’s as hard to manage as decline–perhaps even more difficult. Surround yourself with a diverse group of people. We like to hire people who look like us. It’s a comfort thing. But selecting folks from different backgrounds will bring fresh voices to your company. And make sure you hire employees that will disagree with you. We also like to hire people who tell us, ‘Yes.’ In the long run though, you might need someone who will say your brilliant idea is completely stupid.
It’s true innovation and inspiration might strike by chance. But leaving your company to a complete whim, something as random as lightning, is an awful risk. Sure you can wing it. But, like I always say, why not make the whole thing more predictable?