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An Interview With Debra Kaye

By Brendan Byrnes - Apr 19, 2013 at 5:58PM

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Making the Connections that Lead to Innovation

In the following interview, we speak with Debra Kaye, innovation expert and author of Red Thread Thinking: Weaving Together Connections for Brilliant Ideas and Profitable Innovation. The book takes a fresh look at innovation, where ideas come from, and what every company needs to understand about its markets, whether at home or abroad.

We touch on a number of topics in this interesting interview, including Steve Jobs and other prolific innovators of our times, finding out what customers want, how to keep pace with an evolving market, future trends, and more.

A full transcript follows the video.

Brendan: Hi, I'm Brendan Byrnes, and I'm joined today by Debra Kaye. Debra is the author of Red Thread Thinking. Thank you for your time.

Debra: Thank you very much for having me here.

Brendan: I wanted to ask you about the title of the book. What does "Red Thread Thinking" mean?

Debra: Red thread thinking; first of all, it's a metaphor. Business books tend to be dry, so we created a story around it because people tend to learn things better based on stories.

Red thread is a metaphor. It's an ancient Asian legend. A god comes from the sky. He ties a red thread to the ankles of people that you're going to meet throughout life. These are all the connections you're going to make.

Innovation is about all the connections that you make between different ideas to come up with an innovation.

Brendan: The book is based on these five red threads. Could you maybe talk briefly about each one, and maybe a few examples?

Debra: There are actually lots of red threads, but here we concentrated on five major ones. The first red thread is "It's All in Your Head." It's all about how you open up your mind to let new ideas come into your head.

The second red thread is "The Old is New." There's no original idea in the world. Innovations are based on a lot of ideas that are already existing, so how do you build on already existing ideas?

The third red thread is based on people, the "Strangest Animals at the Zoo," and how do you really play into people's habits, rather than changing them, to build new innovations?

The fourth one is "What You See is What You Get," which is really all about how you can make simple ideas really visible, and how you can really make them sing.

The last red thread is about "Passion," because if you're not passionate about your innovation, it's never going to sell.

Brendan: I wanted to ask you about Steve Jobs in particular. He was famous for, "Maybe customers don't know yet what they want;" iPod, iPhone, iPad ... how does that fit in here with, specifically, maybe the third red thread, which is "People?"

You look for your customers, maybe, to give you some insight on what they want. How does that fit in with that?

Debra: He was a great salesman, and that's a very good commercial line, but basically he really did understand what they want.

When he created the iPod, he could have created just another, more beautiful MP3 player; but what he really understood was he is not in the MP3 business. What he understood was, he is in the music business, and what people wanted was the benefit of getting music faster and easier.

Instead of creating a more beautiful MP3 player, what he did was say, "How can I get people faster music, better music, sooner?" and he created iTunes. He really just created a whole new business, and now, of course, Apple owns the majority of the music business.

Brendan: One of the things you talk about in the book, also, is getting your products to stand out. How can companies best do that, and maybe some examples of companies that are doing a great job?

Debra: The way you get your product to stand out is, first of all, innovation. Your product has to have a point of difference. It can't just be marketing.

Companies that are doing that are companies like Whole Foods. They really created products with a point of difference. They really are the originators of organic foods, and then they really do what they say. They talk about it on the web and things like that.

Patagonia is another company that really does what it says because, not only are they really trying to do things that are ecologically more sound, but you can go look at their Footprint Chronicles, and you can really see how much they're doing in terms of ecologically sound behavior, and what that means in the cost of each product that they're making.

Companies that really do as they say, and say as they do, are companies that are making it more obvious.

Brendan: How about using history toward future innovation, another thing that you talk about? How can you use past examples and apply them to the future, that is obviously unknown right now?

Debra: Again, every product and service is really based on history. The product that I like to use the best is really the most well-known in the world. It's the Gutenberg press, because everyone understands that one the best.

The Gutenberg press, he based that on Chinese movable type that was invented 500 years before his birth. He lived in Germany, so he had the vintners of Rhineland, who understood the press, and he was a metallurgist, so he understood how to use the metal to make the press move.

With those things is how he really created the press that changed the world and communications.

Brendan: What do you think is the main thing that maybe someone sitting at home -- obviously, all sorts of people are going to read your book -- what's the main takeaway that you want from them, as far as the key for getting them to become a better innovator and better marketer?

Debra: What I think separates my book from all books ... most books start with the innovation and really tell you, "Here's the insight the innovator had, and here's how he brought that innovation to market."

I start with the person. The most difficult thing for me is when I had to come up with a new idea, and I had nothing in my head, so where do you look for new ideas? I think that that is really what separates my book from all books. When you have nothing in your head, how do you start? Where do you really go to look for ideas? I think that's what my book does.

Brendan: Where do you do that? Where do you find new ideas?

Debra: Exactly that. The first red thread really tells you how to free up your mind. One of the things I teach you is something called Functional Fixedness, which is in your mind.

For example, if a burr falls on your shirt, what most people will do is say, "Ugh, this is a burr. I can't stand this burr," and walk away.

But if you think about this burr, and you say, "Wow. This is a burr. It's sticking to my shirt. How did this happen? Wow, I don't really understand this," and if you really start to think about it, you could be the next inventor of Velcro.

It starts to ask you to ask the questions in the most unexpected ways. That's one thing; opening up your mind to unexpected questions.

The next thing it does is tell you how to look at history. A lot of things we do for clients, for example, is to look at their history of things.

Sometimes, in big companies, when they do a piece of research, it's to answer a question, then that research is thrown away. They never look at all the research together to look at the themes that are weaving through. In those themes is where you can really find some of the best culture.

Another thing that we teach you, in the book, to do is to really look at underlying behavior and not to look at trends.

People will innovate on trends and they'll often fail, because trends are so ephemeral. We say, "Look at the underlying behavior."

Brendan: What about applying innovation to different markets? How do you pick and choose when doing that? How do you evolve into different markets, especially emerging markets, which are kind of the rage right now?

Debra: Again, what you really need to understand is the underlying behavior. That's not just in emerging markets; it's in any market.

People tend to miss that. We look at the surface behavior, and we forget that there are beliefs and values underneath that are causing that behavior. I'll give you a fun example.

When the Syfy channel wanted to change their logo, they changed it to "Syfy," and they made a very big mistake, because they didn't realize that there was a cultural value of "syfy" which stood for an STD disease. That is not a very good marketing behavior.

What you don't see always ... you have to really go in, if you're going into especially an emerging market, and understand what are the underlying values? For example, is the color yellow something that's very disturbing to people? Things like that.

Brendan: You have an example in the book about how Jeff Bezos at Amazon (AMZN 3.66%) would ring the bell every single time they had a sale in the early days; also Starbucks originally didn't even sell a cup of coffee. They would sell the whole beans.

Could you talk about how technology, and how great innovators -- Howard Schultz, Jeff Bezos -- can use that most effectively, and maybe how other people can apply this, when they're reading your book?

Debra: Those are little stories of how innovators get excited and have their passion, but I think there's something maybe more important that we can talk about today. There's a lot of things we're hearing about today, about Facebook (FB 1.83%), for example, and that teenagers are using Facebook less, and what does that mean for Facebook?

Again, I think it's because we're not looking at the underlying culture. It's that Facebook is changing, and they need to be paying attention to that.

There is something that is very important in America. We have an underlying, core value. We believe in reinvention. We believe in our capacity to change. We believe in this in a very deep way.

Facebook is something where you put a story on. You put your history of yourself on, and it's there permanently. Facebook, today, is almost like email. You don't look at your email in a second, like you look at a text message.

Then comes along something called Snapchat or Instagram, where, in that moment, you can express your emotion and send it out right away, whereas Facebook is something that's more curated.

That is more about your quicksilver self, which is more of our underlying capacity to reinvent ourselves and things, than Facebook was at that moment. Facebook now needs to understand -- and that's probably why they did buy Instagram, if they have that great foresight -- you need to understand how deep culture, and evolve products based on that.

I think that's what Amazon deeply understands.

Brendan: What do you think are some examples of innovators whose style, specifically, we can learn from? Maybe a few examples there.

Debra: Well, that's a really hard question.

Brendan: Maybe there are no styles, in particular, that someone should use. Maybe there are all different styles that people should incorporate?

Debra: I think all great innovators have one thing in common. They have a natural curiosity. The second thing they have in common is an open mindedness and a childlike capacity to not say no.

I think that is something we all must have. I think the younger you can think, the more childlike behavior you can have ...

In fact, there have been studies that have been done where we have sent people into groups and we have said, "Here's a problem. Go solve the problem."

Then we send another group of people into another group and we say, "If you were a child of six, how would you go and solve the problem?" and they come up with many more answers than if you just sent them into a group as an adult.

I think having that childlike innocence, to be open minded, is what all great innovators have in common.

Brendan: Any in particular that you're really, really bullish on?

From an investor's point of view, maybe, at The Motley Fool, we look at companies. We like founder-led companies. We like great innovators who see around different corners before anyone else does. Maybe a unique insight on that?

Debra: I think everybody thinks, and I do too, Steve Jobs was brilliant. I actually think what Jeff Bezos does with Amazon is brilliant. I really think that he understands his company in a very deep way.

Brendan: Right. Let's talk about overall.

When you think about innovation, is this the most innovative time period that we've ever had in human history, do you think? Is it because technology is allowing us to do that?

Debra: That's a really good question. I would say that innovation is more open to anyone than it's ever been. I think that we're going to start to see a more open technology and open period of innovation than we ever saw.

I'm not even sure how it's going to change. I think 3D printing is going to change the world, and I think the idea that we can now do things with 3D printing, in terms of imprinting blood and science and things like that, is going to make the next 20 years the most innovative period of our times.

Brendan: My last question is who did you write the book for? Who should be reading this book? Who's your target audience?

Debra: That's a really good question because I'm going to tell you the truth about that. When I first started to write the book, I thought that this would be a great book that would help my company get more -- I work for major brands -- get more large brands.

Then, as I started writing the book I thought, "You know, I want to write this book to help people when I've been stumped."

When I've been stumped is, the way I work with companies, they come and say, "Debra, grow my business." It's called whitespace innovation. They don't give me any help, whatsoever, in terms of how to grow the company. I have to sit and look at a blank piece of paper.

Then I thought, "Well, what about those young entrepreneurs out there? What about all those business people who have tough business problems, and they have to stare at a white piece of paper? What if I could give them a primer of where to begin and how to do that, so that you never have to have fear of that white piece of paper again?"

That's why I wrote the book; for those people.

Brendan: It's a very interesting book, Red Thread Thinking. Debra, thanks so much for your time.

Debra: Thank you very much. 

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