George E. L. Barbee: Part 2 of an interview by Bob Morris


BarbeeGeorge E. L. Barbee is one of the original Batten Fellow faculty members (along with Jim Collins, Malcolm Gladwell and Jim Gilmore) at top-ranked University of Virginia Darden School of Business, and has been teaching innovation for the past 15 years to over 500 MBA students and senior executives.

Barbee’s 45-year business career has taken him to over 40 different countries over four continents. He has founded three successful entrepreneurial companies and has led innovation with several Fortune 100 companies including Gillette, General Electric, PepsiCo, IBM and PricewaterhouseCoopers.

He received Darden’s highest alumni honor, the Charles C. Abbott Award, in 2000 and has been recognized in “Who’s Who in the World” as a global business leader. He has written and originated numerous articles, and has appeared multiple times on NBC’s Today Show, ABC’s Good Morning America, PBS and CNN. He has also been quoted widely in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times throughout his career.

George and his wife, Molly, travel extensively and live on Captiva Island, Florida, during the winter months, and in beautiful Leland, Michigan, during the summer. Their four sons have all lived in foreign countries and are now scattered across the U.S. from Atlanta, to D.C., to Montana.

Here is an excerpt from Part 2 of my interview of George.

* * *

Morris: When and why did you decide to write 63 Innovation Nuggets?

Barbee: Actually, I was a voracious note taker throughout my career. If I came across something innovative, I’d jot it down and put it in a folder. I vaguely thought I might put it together in a book someday.

Over the course of teaching for 15 years, I found myself digging out these notes to use as examples and stories. I also found I was making more notes with the learning I experienced with these bright, 30-year-old students who thought quite differently than I did. And they were in the midst of new trends around technology, social media, habits, and outlooks.

Two years ago, I thought I would begin to seriously organize all these notes and documents. And did the writing and editing in 1 1/2 years, thanks to a marvelous free lance editor I found in Susan Carlson.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Barbee: Two “head snappers” come to mind right away. I noticed that early reviewers of the book seemed to like the short, pithy format of the nugget: an insightful “morsel” on less than one page. And then a brief story to support it or make it come alive on the next page.

While I personally liked the format and found it easy to write to, the first “head snapper” was how many other busy executives and reviewers emphatically liked it—almost universally given the limited amount of time at one sitting that we can make time to read a book these days.

The second “head snapper” was the use of technology in the writing and editing process itself. Carlson and I would meet, discuss tactics, and then sometimes we were months apart geographically, but connected almost every day through online writing, interactive feedback, quick resolutions, and improved real-time manuscripts. It was truly amazing to me how efficient today’s technology has made writing and editing a book.

Morris: In your opinion, what are the most common misconceptions about innovation? What, in fact, is true?

Barbee: There are two misconceptions. First, there is a difference between invention and innovation. Steve Jobs, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford were masters of invention. They were invention geniuses, as distinct from innovative. So, the invention of a “product” is different from innovation—the first misconception.

The second misconception is that someone has to be uniquely born to be an innovative genius—like Steve Jobs. But what about the rest of us? I often like to ask. The reality is that most of us are much more innovative than we give ourselves credit for. Or that our boss might give us credit for. And innovation is both a learnable skill and teachable. The second misconception is debunked by the fact that innovation is both learnable and teachable.

This is what inspired me to write the book. I saw that innovation was learnable during my business career across many different industries and many different cultures. And I could see, first hand, that innovation could be taught as I worked with over 500 students over the years at Darden.

Morris: What is the single greatest barrier to establishing a workplace culture within which innovation is most likely to thrive?

Barbee: There are a host of “shut down” words and expressions—maybe 20 or more ranging from ‘we’ve tried that before’ to ‘that could impact our current business negatively’.

There a variety of nuggets in the book dealing with this “organization cramp” issue. Suffice to say, organize a like- minded network in the organization, focus on future key customer needs, and earn top executive leadership air cover. There are many examples of this being done successfully. Don’t despair.

Morris: Of all the breakthrough innovations (not creations) throughout history, which – in your opinion – has had the most beneficial impact on the human race? Please explain.

Barbee: In recent history, the combination of the global network and smartphones. It has enabled a globally-connected exchange of information almost instantaneously. News and innovations can transfer at almost warp speed. The recent troublesome discoveries and short-comings in China’s economy, and it’s almost instantaneous effect on world-wide stock markets is a recent example.

Morris: These are among the several dozen subjects of greatest interest and value to me. For those who have not as yet read the book, please suggest what you view as the most important point or key take-away from the passage in which it is discussed.

First, challenging a dominant competitor

Barbee: If you are dominant today, you still need to be watching your flanks for tomorrow. If you are a challenger, there may be easy pickings due to too much hubris or fear of self-cannibalization within the dominant player.

Morris: Reconstructing an enterprise

Barbee: Almost every industry is in a process of deconstructing (splintering) and reconstructing (reassembling). Seeing these patterns, thinking about them, and imagining the future is almost a certain path to innovation.

Morris: Focusing on heavy users

Barbee: This could be one of the most overlooked Innovation Nuggets. Heavy users are gold! For example, a woman with long, straight hair is worth almost 10 times the shampoo usage of a man with short hair. Pay attention to heavy users.

Morris: Capitalizing on satisfaction gaps

Barbee: Most industries and categories within them have enormous satisfaction gaps—the pay off is taking the time to observe and act on them.

Morris: Making an impressive presentation of an idea

Barbee: Innovators are always presenting and convincing. There are some simple insights to capture and engage your audience. Finding a way to connect to your audience is key.

Morris: Respecting what may seem to be an “absurd” idea

Barbee: An “absurd” idea is so very important to protect, and it bears re-emphasizing a few thoughts. If we have the courage to put forth an out-of-the-box or absurd idea, we have made ourselves vulnerable. We have often laid ourselves bare for criticism and teasing. So often these ideas can be shut down and ridiculed.
Not only do we run the risk of losing a good idea, or the seed of a good idea, we may more permanently shut that person down for future absurd ideas or connections.

I feel this ridicule at an early age is what we have to overcome in our education system and in many of our business environments where there are points to be gained from deriving the one “right answer.” Seldom is there just ONE right answer.

Stay open. Encourage the absurd idea. At least write it down and don’t lose it. Protecting it will build confidences in the team and open up imaginative thinking.

Morris: Innovating through iterations

Barbee: Again at the risk of over-emphasizing a point, seldom do we get it right the first time. And seldom in the laboratory or away from the end customer or client.

As soon as the quality of a product or service is at “acceptable quality levels,’ try to get it to the market as soon as possible. Learn from real market experiences and feedback. Use the ultimate end users to gain constructive feedback. Make changes. Take it back out to the market. These are the important iterations that can perfect successful new products and services.

* * *

Here is a direct link to the complete Part 2.

Please click here to check out Part 1.

Also, George cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

63 Innovation Nuggets link

Amazon link to 63 Innovation Nuggets

Facebook link

Twitter link

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