Gene Kim and I organized a session at SXSW Interactive this past weekend. Our topic was Be Heard: How to Drive Innovation in Big Companies.

Gene already shared some of the work we did to prepare for the presentation.

I wanted to share a few more thoughts while they were fresh in my mind. This is my own opinion – if you were there, I’d love to get your perspective. Here are our lessons learned from presenting at SXSW.

The Good

1. We got right to the point, and built energy quickly.

We started with a vision: to get the session started quickly, establish credibility, tell a story to build energy and give an example, and then get going. We didn’t want to get bogged down.

Keeping that vision firmly in mind, we refined the content relentlessly. We had started in early February, shortly after we learned that our proposal was accepted. I had written a half dozen personal stories, and we each wrote bios.

By the time we both had gotten to SXSW, I had 15 minutes of material I was planned to cover. However, I could feel the energy lagging just rehearsing the content, and I knew 15 minutes was much too long to make the audience wait for a session that was intended to be audience-driven.

We spent about eight hours together in person at SXSW refining the talk until we had the minimum amount of material that established our vision for how the session would go.

2. We didn’t waste time building motivation.

There were 48 programming slots for 12:30pm on Saturday. That meant that anyone who came to our session came because they were interested in our title and our session descriptive. So we didn’t need to convince anyone who was there was it was important. By choosing our session out of the 48, it was a sure sign they thought it was important.

Therefore, we focused on making sure people left with actionable tips and techniques. We’ll leave the motivational stuff to the keynote speakers.

3. We involved the audience both in soliciting the problem statement and in offering the solutions.

Knowing that it was a core conversation format, the expectation is to involve the audience. And one of the unique characteristics I’ve noticed about SXSW is just how smart everyone is: You could pick any person at random and have a very interesting conversation with them. Everyone is an expert in their area.

Therefore, we expected people to know more than us, much more. So not only did we want the audience to offer solutions, but we also wanted to make sure we got the inventory of problem types from them as well. This also gets to the actionable techniques: they are only actionable if they match a problem you are having.

4. We time boxed the problem solicitation portion, the brainstorming for each problem area, and each problem.

We knew that one downside that can occasionally occur with core conversations is lagging energy, or a slow pace. If someone comes up and hogs the mic, or if you spend too much time in an area that large swaths of the audience isn’t interested in, energy and attention lags.

So we time boxed everything. (As it turns out, I don’t think we ever had to cut off an individual speaker. Yay. I wasn’t looking forward to that.)

The Bad

1. Too little sleep.
We stayed up until 2am the night before refining the talk, and then got back up at 7am to continue working on it. It would have been nice to have gotten more sleep.
2. No memorization.
Because we kept refining the talk up until the last minute, I couldn’t memorize the content. And because I had originally memorized much more content (15 minutes worth), had I tried to wing it, I would likely go too long.
Gene encouraged sticking to the prepared content, even if that meant reading from the paper. There’s no point in investing dozens of hours in refining language to ignore all that work.
3. Too much time on problem solicitation.
We spent a few minutes too many on the problem statement, and should have moved earlier into solutions. I don’t think it was terrible, but we should have gone into solution brainstorming at least 5 minutes earlier.

The Forgotten
1. Names, email addresses, twitter handles, and websites.

There was no projector to put up our names or contact information, nor a flip chart to write them on. Ideally SXSW would provide this, but given that they did not, we should have spent more time telling people our names, twitter handles, and websites.

We would like to connect with people and have the opportunity for follow up.

2. Continuing the conversation

In retrospect, we would have loved have planned a big dinner at a restaurant, and then extend an invitation to everyone at the session. It would have been a great way to talk longer with people who otherwise had to run off to the next session.
3. Feedback
We should have asked for feedback, which is crucial to SXSW organizers, and helps speakers if they propose a topic for the next year.

In 2003 I started blogging in my company’s internal blogosphere. The topic was the intersection of social media and customer support, as well as the Long Tail of customer support issues.

After a half dozen blog posts on the topic, I started to get some attention from other bloggers, who chimed in with their own thoughts and reactions. Their feedback pushed me to develop my ideas further. As I’ve written about before, eventually those blog posts turned into a whitepaper and still later a presentation.

At the time my immediate management chain was not particularly supportive of my ideas. I’ve seen other folks advocate that when your management isn’t supportive of your innovation, then you should simply go above their heads and show your idea to the people above your manager. In my opinion, this is a fine way to make an enemy of your manager. Fortunately, I didn’t do that.

Instead, I started responding to requests for presentations from people in different parts of the business. I spoke to several groups in the enterprise side of our business, the website management portion of the business, the PC business, the research arm. In fact, I talked to nearly everyone except the folks in my own business.

With each presentation, I iteratively improved my own thinking on the matter, my presentation, and my presentation skills by listening to feedback and understanding the application in different business contexts.

One of the reasons this works so well is that strangers don’t have any preconceived notions about who you are. So they are more likely to take what you say at face value. Your ideas get judged, instead of you getting judged.

Whereas, for many people, your immediate managers and immediate peers and partners will view you with a certain amount of baggage: They have their own idea of who you are, what you do, and what you’re good at. This is certainly true of me: my managers have viewed me alternatively as an expert on data analysis, a program manager, a web developer. But when I’ve stepped outside those roles, it’s hard for them to accept that.

By the time I was ready to present to managers in my own group and our immediate partners, I had a well vetted set of ideas, and honed my presentation skills. My managers had received kudos about the work I was doing, so they had some sense that something was coming, and weren’t completely blindsided.

With positive feedback from others ahead of the event, and seeing a well-craft presentation, my own management gave my presentation their full attention, and I was able to break through the barriers of any preconceived notions.

I come into work one morning. I go get a cup of coffee, say “hi” to folks, and sit down at my computer. I fire up Outlook, read my new email, and answer a few questions. And without thought, I head over to Facebook before I start my work. I read through a handful of my friends’ status updates before it hits me.

What the heck am I doing?

It’s my choice how I spent my time at work, and how much time I spend at work. Is reading Facebook what I really want to be doing – even just as a five minute mental break?

I close the Facebook window and sat back. No, Facebook is not really how I want to spend my time. What I really want to do was to leave work early to go work on my book. (At the time, I was writing a science fiction novel.) What I also want to do was prove there was a connection between printer installation failures and people returning their products – a theory I’d had for a while, and which was widely believed, but never actually quantified.

That’s the exceptional stuff. And of course there is my business-as-usual job basics. But reading Facebook and answering email isn’t going to get me out of work early so I could go write, and it isn’t going to get my pet research project done.

I sit down and made a list of the most important things I need to get done that day.

    #1 on that list is to move the research project forward, which meant I needed a source of email addresses of customers who had an installation failure. 
    #2 is to analyze survey feedback on one of our support tools, and send out the results. 
    #3 is to get everything else done so I could leave work a little early to go write.

Determined to stay focused, I ignore email, Facebook, gadget blogs, work social media, and all other distractions. With laser sharp focus, by 11am I have done my two most important and urgent things: moving the research project forward, and analyzing the survey feedback. I finish so quickly I realize that the only barrier stopping me from getting them done earlier was simple procrastination and distraction.

By 1pm I take care of my other business as usual work, and by 3pm I am sitting in a coffee shop working on my book.

This becomes a habit for me. Each day I start work, I made my list of 1 to 3 really important things I needed to do.

The idea for this actually came from Tim Ferriss’s book: The Four Hour Workweek. The idea that Tim put out there was that most of our work day is procrastination: whether it is procrastination by reading email or blogs or Facebook or make-work. And if we just did our really important work, we’d be done in half the time and with twice the effectiveness

I don’t know if any of you ever read David Allen’s Getting Things Done, but he advocates all these lists: lists of things to do at home, by a phone, at work, in front of a computer. Lists and lists and lists. The system is effective for reducing stress and improving productivity, but it doesn’t really help you focus on what’s most important. So you are doing more, but are you doing the right things?

I practice this habit of making a list of 1 to 3 key things each day for months. I made refinements too: making a list of 1 to 3 key things for each week, so I have a general theme for the week.

Most importantly, I make sure that most days, unless the list was truly filled with crucial and urgent business as usual stuff, I put at least one item that moved my own innovation projects forward. I make it a point to get that work done before lunch.

Sure, I still have plenty of business-as-usual things to do, but I’m consistently making progress on my innovation projects.

I am working on one of these innovation projects, when I have a new insight. The idea I am working on is the application of recommendation engines to our newest generation of web connected printers.

Each day I am putting something related to the project on my most-important-task list. For several weeks running I worked on getting access to the data we had, then on how to understand the data. After that, I focused on coding the algorithm. Then I blog about it in the internal company blogosphere, then I optimize my code some more. Then I get some additional data. Then optimize based on the new data.

It finally hits me: I am procrastinating yet again. I am only doing the parts that are comfortable to me. I love coding, and I love data analysis. I love writing and I love blogging.

Those were the things I’d do anyway, even if they weren’t on my most-important-task list.

What I need on my task list is the stuff I am less comfortable with: promoting the idea. I need to make slides to boil down the concept and show the project results. I need to find out who the key players were that would care about app recommendations, and talk to them. I need to sell my idea. I was coding away, thinking I was moving my idea forward, when really I was just procrastinating to avoid talking to people.

This isn’t just a problem that software developers have. I have a friend who is a great salesperson and business person. He loves to talk to people, to build up excitement about a project or an idea. He’s had many great ideas for interesting products, but they tend to remain at a very abstract level: talking points, rather than mockups of screens or detailed documentation. He procrastinates when it comes to the detail level stuff.

Now when I made my 1 to 3 item list, I make sure that my own project ideas are on the list, and I make sure that I’m picking the things I need most to move my project forward. Not just the most fun or most comfortable ones, but the ones that make the biggest impact.

When I finally get around to promoting the recommendations project, I create a set of slides. I deliberately choose to show a high fidelity mockup of what the recommendations might look like, guessing that this would be the best way to describe the concept. I include example data I had run through my algorithm, and a high level description of the algorithm. I feel out who the key people were, then sent then my slides.

That same day the slides started getting forwarded around inside the company, and made their way to several managers and engineers Another engineer in a different part of HP turned out to be working on something similar, and he contacts me so we could share techniques.

Other managers were impressed with the work, and get in touch with my  manager to talk about it. To date the idea hasn’t been implemented for customers, which would have been the ideal outcome to me. But I’m sure it will eventually, and when it does, it’ll be influenced by the work I did.


Context: Any idea you are going to pursue is going to require time to work on it: time to shop it around, improve it, sell it, implement it.

Obstacle: Most people are fully booked. If they look at their life, they don’t see any free time they can use for anything they are not already committed to.

Solution: Start each day with a focused list of a maximum of 3 most important things to accomplish that day (less if possible). Keep a laser sharp focus on getting those 3 most important things done. You should be done, in most cases, by 11am, leaving most of the day to get the rest of your business as usual work done.

In 1996 I discovered that my large corporate employer had a fairly new, but emerging internal company blogosphere. I set up my own internal blog that was a mix of posts on interesting things I came across, as well as posts about my work.

At the time I was working on social media and customer support. I wrote about using wikis for online documentation, forums for customer support, about making support document feedback visible so customer’s could see each other’s comments, and how customer support problems fit the classical long tail definition made popular by Chris Anderson.

I received great feedback on my blog posts: passionate discussion in the comments, many hits and re-posts. People were genuinely enthusiastic about what I was writing, and I quickly became the go-to expert for social media and customer support.

But can you spot the problem? I was talking to the choir. The people reading my blog posts inside HP weren’t executives or decision makers. They were social media enthusiasts. Of course they got why it made sense to use social media for customer support.

I had a vague notion that I needed more reach further out. So I took my blog posts, and made those into a whitepaper describing the opportunity for social media and customer support. Suddenly the people who were reading my blog posts had something that felt more credible that they could forward on to other people. Now I had more reach.

But I was still reaching primarily technical people – people who would like to read a whitepaper. While that was good, but I still wasn’t reaching the decision makers – the managers who were deciding on the plan of record.

I took the next step and boiled everything down into a set of Powerpoint slides. This is one of those tasks that I always have mixed reactions about. On the one hand, the slides look pretty. On the other hand, it feels like I have dumbed down my content.

But suddenly my presentation found its way into the hands of management across the company. I had mid-level managers asking me to present to their staffs on social media. I had senior VPs asking me to coach them on a presentation to our CEO.

A little while later, after presenting to much of customer support organization, and after coaching the VPs who were presenting to the CEO, our Fortune 500 company had:

  • a dedicated social media team in our support organization
  • we launched our support forums – forums which now handle millions of customers and tens of thousands of posts
  • we started looking harder at embedding social features in our web site, and in a few cases we’ve done it.

Now, to be clear: other people did the vast majority of the work, and other people campaigned very hard to create the environment for all of that to happen. I don’t want to downplay all the very hard work that they did.

But I made a substantial contribution to getting social media into the mindset of managers across the company, and painting a picture of the benefits they could realize by using social media throughout our support strategy.

But none of that could have happened if I had stuck only with blog posts and a white paper. Even though the ideas and knowledge were there, had been reviewed by others and improved, it still lacked the final piece necessary to go viral inside a large company: PowerPoint. Unfortunate perhaps, but still true. I had to endorse PowerPoint, make slides and shop them around, and lastly, get out there and talk to people. If you’re a geek who’d rather be writing Ruby code, it isn’t the most natural thing to do. But in the end, the benefits for our customers, our company, and my career made it worth doing the uncomfortable.

Context: Once a new idea is germinated, investigated, and described, at a certain point you need a viral spread of the idea.

Obstacle: Twitter, YouTube, and Blogs spread ideas virally in the global environment, but aren’t applicable for distribution inside a corporate network.

Solution: The most viral communication mechanism inside the corporate is still a pithy powerpoint slide deck. A Powerpoint presentation is:

  1. suitable for mixed visual/written communication.
  2. well accepted by executives.
  3. easy to share via email, the dominant communication mechanism in business.

There’s more written on corporate innovation than any class of MBA students can read. Harvard Business Review publishes countless articles on the topic. One of my personal favorites is Gifford Pinchot’s classic book Intrapreneuring.

You’re not paid to think.
Shut up and get
back to work.

One thing that these traditional corporate innovation approaches have in common is that they are generally about how to change the corporation to encourage more innovation. It’s a worthy cause, but because of the glacial pace of change inside most big companies, there’s another approach that can be more rewarding and productive in the short-term: Corporate Hacking 101.

Now by Corporate Hacking, I don’t mean some kind of computer crime. Rather, corporate hacking is the process of routing around bureaucratic rules, people who like to say “no”, and plan of record processes. It’s a collection of techniques that allow an individual to succeed in driving innovation forward in spite of the system in place. Rather than change the system, we adapt and move forward anyway.

Sure, it’d be wonderful if my organization suddenly became vastly more innovative, but I’m not going to wait for that to happen, or to wait for permission to start innovating. It’s in my blood. It’s what I come to work to do.

I’m eager to read Seth Godin’s new book Poke The Box, as it seems to be very much in the same vein.

Over the coming days, I’m going to be posting some of my favorite stories about the techniques I’ve used to get innovative ideas implemented at my job.

I hope they help you. If you use any of them, let me know if you have success. And if you have stories or other techniques you’d like to share, let me know, and I’d love to post them here.

email: william .dot hertling at gmail .dot com.

MIT professor Erik Brynjolfsson discusses how companies can Use IT to Drive Innovation.

I like this quote about the pace of experimentation:

Amazon runs 200 experiments a day, such as trying out different algorithms for recommending products, or changing where they put the shopping cart on the screen. When they moved the shopping cart from the left to the right of the screen, there was a few tenths of a percent improvement in the rate of abandoned shopping carts. That might not seem like much, but it’s meaningful with hundreds of millions of site visits, and the cost of running the experiment was trivial.

Their culture is one of “Let’s put forward a hypothesis and test it”. What is your company’s culture?

I’ve proposed a panel for SXSW Interactive called Be Heard: How to Innovate At Large Companies.

This is a subject I’m personally interested in. I’ve successfully introduced several innovative ideas at HP where I had to battle organizational inertia and turf wars to get them implemented. I’ve had both failures and successes. But several of my ideas have been implemented, leading to multi-million dollar benefits to HP.

My plan is to approach this panel from several different angles: real-life experiences inside companies, driving innovation from the outside, and authoritative expertise. To do this, two of the panel members will be individuals who have successfully led innovative ideas, from the ground up, to fruition at large companies. One of the invited panel members is Gene Kim, founder and award winning CTO at Tripwire, who can speak based on his experiences driving innovation from the outside in. The third perspective will be brought via another invited panelist, Gifford Pinchot 3rd, successful author and founder of Bainbridge Graduate Institute, who wrote the definitive book on driving innovation inside companies, Intrapreneuring.

I hope you’ll consider voting for my panel. (Don’t forget to login to make your vote count.) 30% of the selection weighting is given to audience votes, so your vote would be very helpful!

Sorry, I got there about 30 minutes late, and so I have only partial notes for this session.

Andrew McAfee
What Corporate America Thinks about Enterprise 2.0
  • How to talk to your bosses about technology
    • Use before and after comparisons instead of demos
      • example: search using MIT’s internal search, versus Google search
        • when i want to find the MIT search site, I use Google
        • “strength weak ties”
        • “granovetter weak ties”
        • 49 search results from MIT research, but not one was the right one
        • use Google Scholar
          • granovetter weak ties
          • first result: the right paper, can download the full text, the list of citations, etc.
      • google scholar put together in someone’s spare time over a few months
    • Present theories and frameworks, not jargon
      • grounded in bullet-proof previous work
      • example: a knowledge worker’s view of the enterprise
        • concentric circles
          • none -> potential -> weak -> strong ties
        • then explain how facebook helps build, strengthen, manage the weak ties
    • Present data, case studies, narratives
      • Not about Google, Amazon, etc.
      • “I make dog food for a living, literally, my company is 60 years old, not 10, college students aren’t running to work here, I’m not Google”
      • Examples:
        • Internal Uses Case Study
          • Access to Knowledge (68% report 30% improvement)
        • “We can’t do it because we have security concerns” –> Really, because the CIA is doing it, and they have some serious security
        • “If only HP knew what HP knows, we would be three times more productive” – Lew Platt, Former Hewlett-Packard CEO
    • Activate Peer effects
    • Anticipate and allay concerns
      • don’t wait for the questions, and don’t appear to be some dewy-eyed technologist. 
    • Show that you understand their problems is very important
    • Don’t treat business colleagues like geeks, or dopes
      • Very few are geeks
      • None like to be talked down to
      • Don’t talk to them like they are part of the problem
  • 2.0 Adoption Council – 
    • Helps people get 2.0 stuff adopted inside corporate organizations
  • Questions
    • How does Enterprise 2.0 related to new leadership inside organizations?
      • The job of a leader is to find the spark of genius inside an organization — Nelson Mandela
      • So many times I have found people inside an organization saying “Yes, I have that data you’re looking for, no one here is interested in”. 
      • The technology toolkit to find these sparks of genius has gone from zero to 60 in just a few years
    • Age demographics of workers
      • The default mode of working has switched from working in private to working in public — at a certain age group
      • It’s a really important shift, and many older knowledge workers have a had time adapting to that.
      • “The world can benefit from some of our point-to-point interactions if they are done in public.” — some undergrads explained to McAfee
      • “Why would I wait until my work is done to share it? Then it is too late to get any help.”
    • Forward thinking executives now understand customer service has shifted, the expectations have shifted. The corporation is no longer driving the customer message.
      • it takes time
      • a technology revolution does not immediately create an organizational revolution
      • the organization needs to get the message from the top. if they think it is just another flavor of the month, then they’ll wait it
    • what about organizations in the public sector: governments, academia, etc. seem slow to adopt.
      • there are more similarities than differences, but one key thing is that business is in competition, and if they don’t keep up, they will fail. government doesn’t have that pressure. 
    • what about the cluetrain manifesto
      • it is very focused on the marketing communication…how to deal with current and prospective customers
      • the marketshare of old things versus new things is shifting, but not as apocalyptic as they described
    • tried to implement yammer in organization, and it failed miserably. now i am afraid to try anything else.
      • if you are a believer, try to address a different part of the organization or a different need.

I frequently find in my job that I’m the proponent for lots of  iteration and learning. Gifford Pinchot terms this “early learning beats better planning”. By comparison, many folks I work with emphasize getting it right the first time.

While I have nothing wrong with getting it right the first time (if you know what right is, if you have some way to test it, if it doesn’t delay you in getting something out), the problem with it as an approach is that practicioners don’t emphasize closed-loop learning and improvement the way that a “launch and learn” practioner would. So if it isn’t right the first time for whatever reason, you don’t have the processes set up and in place to monitor that, learn from it, and respond rapidly.
I came across an interesting anecdote (via Chanpory Rith, via Trent) from Art and Fear on early learning verus better planning:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.
His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot—albeit a perfect one—to get an “A”.
Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work—and learning from their mistakes—the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.