Mapping Innovation with Greg Satell


“The future is already here ― it's just not very evenly distributed yet.”

[William Gibson]

    This is one of my favorite quotes, because I've found it to be so true. It's true in highly regulated industries, it's true in companies that are still reaping the benefits of what used to work and are not looking outside that yet, and it's true of our lives as well.

    We do love to talk about innovation ― do a search and Google pulls up 656 million entries for the word alone. But do we know what it is and how we go about doing it? Sifting through the various entries to find useful information can be daunting.

    Which is why I was thrilled when Greg Satell published his first book about this very topic. Mapping Innovation was conceived as a playbook to navigate a disruptive age. Greg Satell is a business person, he spent 15 years building and managing media businesses in Eastern Europe, living and working there. Which gives him a unique perspective on both what it takes to build and run a profitable company. 

    The biggest problem with innovation is that it's a very broad term. The best way to go about it is to dig deeper into its applications ― what works for startups doesn't work for large organizations, building a new app is not the same as working on discovering something new in the lab. On a common sense level we get that, but where do we go from there? Mapping Innovation helps us figure it out.

    Here's a conversation I had recently with Greg about the book.

Q: I love the fact that you start the book with a counter intuitive story that introduces the proverbial fork in the road – in an age of formulas and "best practices," you have a different take. In fact, you put substance behind the answer a strategist would give, "it depends." What inspired you to write about innovation?

Over the years I've had the opportunity to run a number of business and I always felt enormous pressure to innovate. Yet when I looked to find some guidance, what I found was a lot of confusion. A lot of people pushing one approach or another, but these were often contradictory.

For example, the Design Thinking specialists say that you should focus on the end user and that makes a lot of sense. But then you go read Clayton Christensen and he explains how listening too much to your customers can drive you out of business! And then you have open innovation, Lean Launchpads and everything else. It's just terribly confusing!

Q: You lived and worked in countries many of us may only read about as a footnote on a news story. You were in the Ukraine, Poland, Russia and Turkey. Two oft-cited reasons by U.S. companies on why groups have a hard time innovating are culture and funds. How would these reasons hold up in comparison with some of the characteristics you found in those cultures?

I wouldn't say either of those applied in any of the places I lived. In fact, I found that the people I worked with in Eastern Europe were some of the most innovative people I have ever met. They grew up in a system that didn't work, so they were always trying to figure out a way to work around it to get what they needed. They weren't habitual rule-followers like we are in America.

What they do lack is an innovation ecosystem. In Regional Advantage, AnnaLee Saxenian explains how Silicon Valley overtook Route 128 outside of Boston as the center of the tech world. In Boston, the tech firms were vertically integrated and very focused on proprietary advantage. The Silicon Valley firms, on the other hand, were focused on building infrastructure, technology programs at community colleges and integrating well with each other. That made all the difference.

So I would say that the same thing is true for companies as it is for regions. The idea that you need a specific culture or a lot of money is belied by the evidence. I researched dozens of organizations and all of them had very different cultures. Startups are able to create exciting new products and services on a shoestring. Are you willing to develop resources and capabilities and connect them in a true ecosystem? That's the real question.

Q: What ideas did you take back with you from those years that helped you build a path to Mapping Innovation?

What I really found was there is always room for a multitude of approaches. When I left America, I had very fixed ideas about how a business should be run. But when I first arrived in Eastern Europe, people asked me why things had to be done that way. Sometimes I had an answer, but usually I didn't. Eventually, I realized that much of what I had believed was cut-and-dried, was really just the result of convention.

As I traveled to, worked in and did business with many different countries, I found that often the same type of business could be run in very different ways. The funny thing was, in each of those countries, very few people had any idea that there was a different alternative to how they did things. To them, that was just how things worked.

So I guess I learned how to have a more open mind and to always look for alternatives. There is no limit to the amount of ways a business can be run.

Q: Were there surprises along the way as you researched the book? Maybe some particularly insightful person you met and did not expect. Or the level of access you had to people and their research.

One thing that really surprised me was how nice everyone was. I think we somehow got the idea that great innovators are these willful, headstrong people, but I didn't find that at all. In fact, they were incredibly generous and thoughtful people. So that was surprising and incredibly gratifying to see.

The more I researched, the more I began to see that this was no accident. It's very had to come up with something significant by yourself. So if you want to come up with a truly pathbreaking idea, you depend on the insights of a lot of really smart people. So it's really important to be seen as collaborative. If everybody thinks you're just in it for yourself, nobody wants to work with you and share their ideas.

Q: Another big conversation in professional circles is about hiring people. It's a very broken system. Yet few replacements in sight. There's this sense that businesses want to make sure bets, get the perfect candidate, yet are not considering the complexity of the problems we're facing, the process is more and more like a long obstacle course that leaves a bitter taste for everyone involved. The system could use an overhaul. From your research and conversations, is that on the horizon for companies, innovating recruitment?

I think what companies need to understand nowadays is that you don't need the best people, you need the best teams. So you need good collaborators, people who can listen as well as talk. You also need a significant amount of diversity, so that you don't have everybody reading of of the same hymn book.

What you really want to avoid is the unproductive big shots who will dominate conversations and drown out everybody else's ideas. Put simply, nobody is that smart. You need to create an environment where people feel safe to share their ideas. That doesn't mean every idea needs to be accepted, but everyone should get a fair hearing.

Q: Has writing the book changed you? In what ways?

Writing the book is incredibly grueling, so hopefully I've gotten a little wiser. But I think what had the biggest effect was researching the book. Talking with people like Charlie Bennett, who is one of the true fathers of quantum computing or Jim Allison, who developed cancer immunotherapy, and seeing what wonderful human beings they are really made me want to be a better person myself.

I'm not saying it's happened already, but I am working on it.


Thanks to Greg we know have a lot of information we can act upon:

  • innovation is a broad and confusing term but we don't need a specific culture or a lot of money to innovate, we must however be willing to develop resources and capabilities and connect them in a true ecosystem
  • research and reality confirm that there is always room for a multitude of approaches the book details how innovation is not a single event, but a combination of things and provides a framework to build our own matrix
  • there is no limit to the amount of ways a business can be run we must keep an open mind if we want to find new or better ways
  • collaboration is key when it comes to innovation ― if people think you're just in it for yourself, nobody wants to work with you and share their ideas
  • in hiring practices, the innovation is how we must think about talent ― you don't need the best people, you need the best teams. This is why culture matters, when the environment is safe for sharing, people do
  • conversation does change our lives

Catch up with Greg on Digital Tonto, on LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook. Also, for an executive summary and the first chapter of Mapping Innovation go here.