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Innovation Expert Debbie Schwartz on the “five things your company should consider in order to create an innovative and adaptable culture”

Technology and consumer behavior are changing so rapidly that even if your organization has a successful product or service or seems “too big to fail,” if you miss the changes happening around you, your organization is ripe for disruption. As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing […]


Technology and consumer behavior are changing so rapidly that even if your organization has a successful product or service or seems “too big to fail,” if you miss the changes happening around you, your organization is ripe for disruption.


As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Debbie Schwartz, chief innovation consultant at Blank Page Advisory. Debbie helps organizations build the innovation competency required to adapt to a quickly evolving consumer and technological landscape. Debbie has applied her expertise in developing solutions for challenging, deeply-felt problems across a range of industries, including financial services, healthcare, technology and education (so far).


Thank you so much for doing this with us Debbie! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I was always a change agent, both as an entrepreneur and within companies of all sizes, but I took the turn into corporate innovation at Transamerica, a global insurance company. I was a successful entrepreneur within the enterprise, where I co-founded the Transamerica Center for Health Studies, a non-profit within the corporation and authored a business case that became a new digital direct-to-consumer business unit. When senior leadership saw a need to create an innovation competency within the broader organization, I jumped on board. In that role, I wrote an “innovation manifesto” that secured the first $800,000 for culture change work, and co-founded their Innovation Center, which was responsible for innovation culture and commercialization for a 6,000-employee division. Today, as a consultant, I help organizations of all sizes and across industries develop their competency for successful innovation and create new product and market strategies that resonate with their customers.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

When I start working with a new client, I often get to immerse myself in an industry that is new to me. Recently, a client had invented an autonomous navigation system for weapons and they wanted to explore whether it could be used for vehicles. This led to a deep dive into the self-driving car space. Over a two-week period, we spoke to everyone in the space that we could, learning all about the evolution of that technology and the industry’s challenges to better understand whether my client’s technology would solve problems for them. One of the conversations that still sticks with me was with a guy in a think tank that focused on autonomous vehicle security. He explained the hacking vulnerabilities of vehicles with any type of a wi-fi connection and the difficulties in making them secure. I still think about that when I’m on the highway…

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

In one of my first consulting gigs, I had to fly to Canada to meet with my client. As usual, I got to the airport just under two hours before my flight, only to learn that the Air Canada ticketing counter closes exactly two hours before flight time so their only two local employees can go to the gate! Since I hadn’t printed my boarding pass, I couldn’t get one and I missed my flight. I learned that sometimes you have to laugh at yourself, then power through less than optimal circumstances. And I always use mobile check-in for Air Canada now!!

You are an “innovation expert”. From your experience, can you articulate why it is important for corporations to keep innovating.

Having an innovation competency within an organization is really about becoming more adaptable to the environment. Technology and consumer behavior are changing so rapidly that even if your organization has a successful product or service or seems “too big to fail,” if you miss the changes happening around you, your organization is ripe for disruption.

For example, blockchain technology is causing the entire banking industry to rethink their reason for existing, while online shopping is killing off some of the biggest and oldest retailers. Why is it so hard for these businesses to adapt? Most of the time, companies get big when they efficiently sell a popular product or service. Efficiency is the key. However, the skill set for the exploration and experimentation that lead to adaptability is basically the opposite of these companies’ core business efficient execution skills. We call it “corporate antibodies”: without an organizational focus on innovation, new ideas and approaches will be immediately shot down because they don’t fit your current production mode.

Can you share with our readers 5 things a company should consider to help create a culture of innovation?

Fighting the corporate antibodies isn’t easy, but one of the first steps is to assess your company’s culture — the written and unwritten rules of success in your organization. Getting your culture aligned with your innovation goals creates a foundation for success. Here are a few questions to ask:

  • Purpose: To what degree does your organization’s leadership and staff understand why you need to innovate? Can you define what innovation success would look like to the organization? Which members of the senior leadership team are supportive of innovation efforts and have they demonstrated that support only through words or with actions as well?
  • Failure: To innovate, you will try new things that won’t work for at least the first couple of iterations. Does your organization have a process to learn from failures or are failed projects killed too slowly, then buried and never spoken of again? What happens to employees involved in failed projects?
  • Customer-Centricity: To create solutions for newly-discovered, deeply-felt customer problems, you have to understand your target consumer. Are you making product development decisions by talking to your team in your conference room or only after face-to-face discussions with end-users? Are you showing consumers prototypes of new ideas before you dedicate resources to build them? Will you face any cultural obstacles when trying to work directly with consumers?
  • Data-Centricity: Are innovation projects the brain-child of the highest paid person in a room or are they born from the data and insights derived from numerous customer interactions? Are you running experiments to validate your most critical assumptions before you make serious investments of time and money?
  • Innovation Leadership: Are your leaders “knowers” or “learners”? Innovation leaders must constantly learn and model new skills to reinforce the innovative culture, recognizing that they don’t know everything they need to be successful, always in a constant state of self-development. Learners actively listen. They are empathetic to their customers and team members. They are vulnerable about failure, modeling for their team how to pivot and leverage what they learned to be successful in the future.

Can you give three suggestions to leaders to help them make better decisions in an environment that is rapidly changing ?

First, validate your assumptions. Someone wise once told me, “If you are in a meeting arguing around a conference table about which direction to take, it’s likely that everyone is just arguing their assumptions.” The way to validate those assumptions is to get data.

Second, run experiments to get behavioral data instead of running a survey. What people actually do is much more accurate than what they say they’ll do. If you’ve ever used survey data to drive product development and then wondered why your product isn’t catching fire, you know what I mean.

As an example, I was working with a school that was exploring whether they should expand from pre-school into elementary school and beyond. Rather than running a survey to measure potential demand, we quickly put together an information session about the elementary program and used social media to get the word out. I figured that if 40 people attended, that would demonstrate sufficient interest to keep moving forward. A hundred people showed up and the restaurant we held the session in had to turn off the lights when people were still firing questions at the head of school at 10:30 pm! Then, I included a quick-and-dirty school application with our thank you email (also to see if people were ready to act on their interest) and the school got buried with applications! The experiment validated the assumption that there was sufficient demand for their expansion. As it turned out, the school grew from 16 students to 92 students in two years.

Finally, when an organization is focused on “more of the same, but more efficiently,” a traditional command-and-control leadership style can work. Leaders in that environment are responsible for having the answers and directing their teams to execute efficiently. However, in an environment where evolving customer attitudes/needs and technology are constantly changing the playing field, leaders must shift from having solutions to falling in love with a problem, asking insightful questions, and creating empowered teams who will use human-centered design principles to create resonant solutions. That type of leadership requires a completely different set of skills and tools, many that are considered “soft,” like active listening and empathy. If you aren’t already strong in these areas, seek out classes and coaches to help you make the transition.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Becoming an innovation leader is a journey of personal development and I needed a ton of help at the beginning. I was a very traditional leader with a strength in strategy. In other words, I was accustomed to seeing a problem, sorting through options in my head and landing on an answer. I’m also a natural introvert, so I’d often do all of these things without talking to another human. Clearly, this doesn’t work for innovation leadership. Joselyn Dipetta works for Google now, but I was lucky to get her as my innovation coach for about three years. She pushed me out of my office and made me speak to people that weren’t already my friends. She asked me powerful questions that made me examine my behavior, turn the strategic laser on myself and realize that I needed to innovate myself in order to help others be successful change agents in an ever-evolving environment. I’d strongly recommend that other leaders starting this journey work with an experienced innovation leadership coach to increase their success.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I love to do that whenever I can. One of the things I loved about my project with the school was that it was bringing a new educational methodology to a community that only had traditional schools. It was touching and sometimes heart wrenching to see the emails that prospective parents would write about their children’s former school experiences. There were many children that either didn’t fit the traditional mold or were simply getting through the days where they were, but would be inspired to do great things in a different educational environment. I feel blessed that I got to see that educational opportunity become a reality for so many children.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

This quote hung on my very first corporate cube wall, training me to trust myself, be resilient through failure and to persevere even if others don’t immediately understand:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Theodore Roosevelt

Innovation is difficult and uncomfortable, but also daring and exhilarating and most of all, necessary

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Recently, I’ve been watching and helping my parents navigate the healthcare maze and there is so much opportunity for disruption there. One of the hardest parts of the experience is paying for care and deciding what care to have based on what they can pay for. It’s very hard to make the health insurance experience pleasant for consumers, but if big companies don’t figure it out, a disruptive start-up will. Therefore, I’ve been very interested in learning about how health insurers are positioning themselves to adapt. Therefore, I’d love to have lunch with Brian Pieninck, the CEO of CareFirst, to learn more about how he’s addressing the challenge.

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