The Topline on TopDog

10 years into our TopDog tours of the most innovative companies in the world, ?What If! co-founder and chairman Matt Kingdon takes stock of five time-tested principles of capability-building.
  • Mattk_large

How do time-pressed senior executives best learn how to develop capability in—and a culture of—innovation? This question has obsessed ?What If! for the last 20 years. When it comes to innovation, leaders wield a lot of power. Only leaders can set an innovation strategy, cancel time-wasting initiatives, kick-start a culture, and commit resources. This is a long to-do list. Ten years ago we started to experiment with accelerated innovation learning programmes. We called these study tours ‘TopDog.’

Today TopDog is a thriving and unique learning system. Ten years of visits, 19 week-long tours, 25 one- or two-day ‘TopPups’, 52 host companies, over 600 senior delegates—we’ve learnt a lot about how fast-growth organisations stay innovative.

There are critical aspects to developing innovation capability that you just can’t pick up from a book or a business-school lecture—things you have to see to believe. TopDog is built around highly effective and enduring learning, and its power still surprises me. I regularly meet senior executives who tell me how, ten years on, they are still referencing their learning with us at TopDog, to good effect. Here I’ve boiled down five principles that the business press struggles to convey. Each has emerged from our TopDog work, and each is a critical foundation of innovation capability.

See It, Feel It

TopDog takes board-level executives to meet peers who are running fast-growth businesses. We’re treated to stories of success and near-disaster and get great insights into the mind of the leader. Why did they do what they did? What did their struggle look and feel like? Then we go backstage, to the warehouse, the kitchens, or the shop floor, and we talk directly to the chambermaids, the truck drivers, and the sales assistants. Privately we check out whether the top brass’s stories ring true. This can be a humbling experience.

We took the Board of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) to the USA to visit six super-growth businesses. We heard inspirational stories from the leaders of Southwest Airlines about how recruiting real fans of the airline had a direct correlation to the amount of good ideas flowing around the business. Later we took part in recruitment activities, sitting in on interviews and even asking questions. The experience was deeply moving. The following day we were at The Container Store (the U.S.-based home storage solutions retailer) where we saw sales assistants recruiting happy shoppers. At the cash till the questions were, “Did you have a good time?” and, “Would you like to work here?” Amazing! How simple! Stop the HR team advertising posts and use shop floor colleagues to recruit fans instead!

The BBC were so psyched by this and other learning that they rushed back to London where their Director General, Greg Dyke, instigated a raft of innovative reforms. This happened because a ‘head and heart’ experience creates resolve a hundred times more effectively than any other learning process. We find it's important for at least a couple of senior executives to participate in this type of experience. You need a buddy back at the ranch, someone with a shared experience, to help drive through change.

Stories, Stories, Stories

At The Container Store, Kip Tindell, CEO and President, didn't give us a ‘CEO lecture.’ Instead he had a shop floor assistant stand on stage. Trembling a little, she recounted a charming story about how if she is out shopping wearing her Container Store T-shirt she is frequently asked for help with directions, and even to fix things in other stores. The punch line is that Container Store employees have an amazing reputation for being friendly and helpful. Kip didn't add to his colleague’s story; he just asked for questions. He was inundated—this was an extremely powerful CEO’s presentation, and yet the man himself had said very little. His staging of the story was extremely eloquent, on several levels.

Companies that put their people forward to tell the big-picture story through their daily actions ooze confidence. Stories like this are inspiring for everyone in an organisation. They translate boardroom speak into practical activities that anyone can do. Stories are also the most effective way of communicating complex learning points over time. I’ve never forgotten The Container Store story, and I’ve told over a thousand people about it since. I am The Container Store’s biggest fan. And all they did was organise the stage and tell a story.

A Network to Innovate

A recent TopDog tour took us to Innocent, the super successful UK smoothie firm. You can see why they were acquired by the Coca-Cola Company. I suspect it would have been difficult for such a large organisation to create something as unique as Innocent, a complimentary acquisition for the Atlanta-based juggernaut. Amongst the many quirky features of this business is its dedication to clubs. I scratched my head when I was first told about the Cooking Club, the Beer Appreciation Club and the Cake Club; employees get together and enjoy each other’s company, lost in their passion. Sounds fun, but what has this got to do with innovation? All became blindingly clear when I was told, “If you’ve been baking cakes the night before with the supply chain director, it's a lot easier to call and ask a favour—I don't know why, it just is.”

Innovation is 99% perspiration—making things happen in complex organisations is best done informally: calling in favours, asking for help, we all know the drill. Informal networks like the Cake Club at Innocent are spectacularly successful tools to promote engagement and innovation capability.

Embrace Destruction

One of the ironies of building a strong innovation machine is the need for an ejector seat. It’s highly likely that the assets and environment you’ve inherited serve to hold innovation back rather than promote it. Curt Carlson, CEO of Stanford Research Institute (SRI), the California-based technology firm and advisor to President Obama on innovation, built an ejector seat into his firm’s innovation process. His people can call a ‘Watering Hole’ meeting if innovation gets stuck. If this happens, Curt attends and swiftly attempts to unblock the project using his executive power to leapfrog process or release funds. The ability to create a lightning rod is critical in large corporations where innovation is often smothered by the middle layers of management. This is the paradox of building capability—by all means build a better model, but realise that you may have to tear it down.

Linguistic Precision

The Four Seasons hotel group innovates all the time. Across their 90 or so hotels, their staff is always trying new things out to enhance the guest experience. I’ve been lucky enough to study five different hotels across several countries, and the importance of introducing new ‘little touches’ is impressive.

This is in part due to how carefully they use language at work. High-end hotels of course have to school their people in the niceties of life; ‘pleases’ and ‘thank yous’ really do matter. It’s interesting to see the impact of such verbal precision on innovation. What you or I might call a ‘problem’ or ‘complaint,’ the Four Seasons call a ‘glitch’. The effect is powerful: a glitch feels like an everyday thing that you just need to put right, while a complaint feels personal, it feels nasty. I feel as if I want to run away from a complaint but enjoy correcting a glitch, and let’s face it—would you rather discuss a glitch or a complaint with your boss? Of course problems are going to arise in a hotel where there are so many moving parts. It’s vital that responsibility is held at all levels to improve and to innovate. The culture around glitches is positive—there’s a good deal of pride around the creative solutions, and it’s an ‘out in the open’ thing. And all because of a simple, human, friendly word.

Recent TopDog Host Companies
Bang & Olufsen
EA Games
Four Seasons
Proctor & Gamble
Red Bull
Southwest Airlines
Enterprise Rent-a-Car
W.L. Gore & Associates

FROM the greenhouse