The Human Touch – Leading Creative People

My Pop Tech Speech:

Today I want to talk about creative leadership. Not necessarily creative ways to run a business, I’m sure you’ve heard all the ten steps to insert creativity into your business. This is not what this speech is about.

 Rather, I want to talk about the challenges and rewards of leading a company made up of creative people.

 I am happy to say that today businesses value creative people more than ever before. I spent the majority of my career trying to convince companies why creativity mattered. Creatives think in new ways. They connect seemingly disparate dots. In short, they are most equipped to tackle the particularly complex problems many businesses face as they innovate..

Of course, creatives are also  known to be unique. At times… very unique. They can  often be moody, reclusive, and temperamental. They keep odd hours. They get bored easily.  In fact, these tendencies make the drivers for creative people different from what drives most business minded individuals. people

 What may drive most business people does not drive a creative person at all.

So, while a creative person’s individual outlook and non-traditional habits are why you want this person in the first place, this can also present some management challenges.

Today I want to make the case that the most successful organizations—whether they’re startups, big businesses, or non-profits—are not only the ones who hire creative people, but they are the ones who have leadership that knows how to harness and put to good use all that creative thinking.

 Let me back up a step and tell you a little about my background.

I don’t consider myself particularly creative. I’m certainly not a designer. I am, however, the president of a firm called Quirky. We make invention accessible and design over 100 products each year. I did not study business in college, and yet I grew a small boutique design firm called frog design into one of the world’s largest and most respected innovation consultancies.

 How is this possible? Not necessarily creative. No traditional business background. And yet, I run successful creative businesses. What is going on?

The fact is, my success lies in my non-traditional background.

 In today’s creative economy, a non-linear, eclectic pathway is now an advantage.

This was not always true. 20 years ago, if you had a background that included studying theater arts, working in film, a stint traveling the world, some experience working as a marketer, and then a job as an operations manager, someone looking at your resume might have thought you couldn’t make up your mind. It was a negative.

Now those kinds of diverse and eclectic backgrounds are a positive.

That’s because we are living in a world that is more connected than it has ever been, and a world in which doing business is an increasingly global prospect.

 It stands to reason that if you have a varied background, you have a multidimensional outlook that is more in sync with the multi-skilled, international landscape that is much closer to our day-to-day lives than it used to be. Not only do you have to interact with different kinds of people, but also you have to learn how to adapt in different situations.

And that takes empathy.

 The dictionary defines empathy as “the ability to understand the feelings of another.”

 The core idea behind Emotional Intelligence is empathy, in the sense that someone with high emotional intelligence has a unique ability to not only understand one’s own emotion, and the emotions of others, but who can use that information to guide behavior and thinking.

Daniel Goleman, the author of the book Emotional Intelligence, applied EI to business and leadership in an article for Harvard Business Review called “What Makes a Leader.”

According to Goleman, “Leaders with empathy do more than sympathize with people around them: they use their knowledge to improve their companies….”

He goes on: “This doesn’t mean that they agree with everyone’s view or try to please everybody. Rather, they thoughtfully consider employees’ feelings – along with other factors – in the process of making intelligent decisions.”

Goleman created an Emotional Intelligence model that describes 5 core tenants:

Self-awareness (“the ability to detect your own moods and emotions and how they impact others”)

Self-regulation (“the ability to redirect” one’s worst tendencies)

Motivation (“a passion for work that goes beyond money or status”)

Empathy (“the ability to understand the emotional makeup of other people”)

Social skill  (“proficiency in managing relationships and building networks”)

With all this attention and research on empathy and emotional intelligence, one would think it would be used more in business.

Unfortunately, it’s not. A businessperson with empathy is still considered soft or a push over.

 However, I believe that businesses that lead with empathy are showing profits as a result of this. Here are some examples/evidence that illustrate those organizations, which show empathy works.

Look at Google. Between the year 2000 and 2011 the number of women working at Google dropped significantly. So much so that the company began trying to figure out what was going on.

 They looked at a number of business practices from the interview process to continuing education at work, but one thing that stuck out was the company’s maternity leave policy.

 At the time Google offered 3 months leave at half pay, but many women were not coming back to work after having a baby.

So in 2012, Google changed its maternity leave program from 3 months at half pay to 5 months at full pay.

 Google also put in place other initiatives to attract and keep more talented women. They made sure to include female managers in the interview process. And they began a series of training sessions and career workshops that were taught by senior women at Google for the benefit of younger female employees.

 Over the past two years, Google has managed to attract and retain more women, and their attrition rate among women has been cut in half.

By initiating a deeper understanding in their employee’s personal lives, Google was able to meet its business goals.

 These days you hear a lot about personalization. How can your organization have great service? How can it relate better to customers? In short, how can a company become more human?

This is a tough problem for any business, but you can imagine how difficult it is for very large B2B company like IBM.

 Back in 2011 IBM was trying to transition from a manufacturing company to a service provider.  They knew that they’d have to do some heavy lifting to be more “human”—to show that they could understand and have an expert grasp on customer relations.

 So did they hire a famous personality to be their spokesperson? Did they roll out their CEO to do advertising? No. They did what they do best: they built a computer. But this wasn’t just any computer. This one was named Watson and it could play Jeopardy.

Remember this? This was a big deal. In 2011 IBM convinced the game show Jeopardy to let Watson compete against two former Jeopardy champions. Watson is an artificially intelligent computer that can answer questions just like any human can. On Jeopardy Alex Trabeck would ask the question, and the cameras would show Watson deliberating and trying to get the answer right against the two other contestants.

And the weirdest thing happened. The audience began rooting for Watson. They began to feel for a machine. The ratings on Jeopardy went through the roof. Watson ended up winning. The show was a huge success.

 More than that, though, IBM did something no one thought they could: they “humanized” a machine – and by extension they humanized their brand – because viewers felt empathy for Watson when it got answers right and wrong.

 Watson is still going. There was a NOVA special called “Smartest Machine on Earth.” Now Watson is picking fashion trends and doing scientific research analytics. The computer is even cooking food in a food truck.

 And what happened to IBM’s business after the Watson Jeopardy show? IBM experienced 20 percent growth in their analytics business during the first quarter directly after the show.

 What does this tell you….That designers are ethnographers and cultural anthropologists. They do field research so they know exactly whom they’re designing for and what their real-world needs are. Not only is this an example of empathy—which literally means putting yourself in someone else’s shoes so that you can better understand them—but it’s also an efficient way to do business. It allows designers to create something that solves a real problem in the consumer market.

Empathy is good business.

 Everyday when I go to work, I try to take the loneliness out of the job. I ask people about their children and about their significant others. I ask them about their interests outside of work.

 I want people at Quirky to know that they’re working at a company that understands them. If you understand the human element of a person—you understand the whole person.

This is important because life and work are no longer so different.

Work is a journey, much like life. People expect that work is more than just balance sheets and budgets. More and more, people want to work at a job that gives meaning to their lives. This is especially true for creative people.

This new reality almost demands that business leaders have a deeper understanding of and compassion for their employee’s lives outside of the office. The key is to acknowledge more than just the work.

As leaders, we have the ability to give others the courage and the power to do at work what they do at home. Our empathy provides more compassion in the workplace, and it encourages more loyalty, more creativity, and by extension better products.

 So give yourselves the permission to have more of a human touch as leaders.

You, your employees, and your businesses will be better off for it.

Greetings from Madame President

Hi Everyone,

You probably heard that I joined Quirky as President in November. I am thrilled to be here and working with such an incredible group of  people. I’m even more thrilled to have the support of a passionate community who cares about making products that can change the world.

These last few weeks I have immersed myself in all facets of Quirky. I don’t believe you should come to a company and assume you know anything. I’ve met with a large majority of the teams. I’ve read through all the forum posts, listen to customer service calls and participated in Evals. It is clear that the Quirky team has the same desire as the Quirky community: Making invention accessible to everyone.

So what’s my job? Quirky has proved that there is a differentiated way to get products to market. We know it works! Now we want to make sure we can scale so we can produce more products from your incredible ideas. That takes some process and structure. In an innovative environment the right processes just make the business run smoother, save time and money, and ultimately produce a much better result. I am helping Ben and all of you cement the foundation to build the best product invention company in the world.

So who am I? If you haven’t Googled me, here are the highlights. I spent the last 16 years building frog from a small boutique into the world largest design innovation consultancy. We produced thousands of products and services for hundreds of companies around the globe.

The ability to view how product development is done in so many environments allowed me to see where the flaws in the process were. All companies are producing products the exact same way. Either the R&D team has come up with a technology and a Product Manager wraps a product around it or someone has an idea and raises money for it.  Quirky is the only one that harnesses the power of the community to identify problems and create products to fix them.

I am not a designer and I am not creative. However, I have managed creative people my whole professional life and I understand how art and commerce can peacefully coexist for the greater good. (ok…I’m a little creative )

I will work with Ben to smooth out the lumpiness that is common in any startup.  I want to help control the chaos, not eliminate it. My job is to make sure we have a great foundation to bring your ideas to market.

Have I told you how excited I am to be here? I’ll keep you posted on the progress and I always welcome your input.

Business needs to Practice the tao of simplicity


To succeed, companies of all types have to learn how to help simplify consumers’ lives.


By Doreen Lorenzo


doreen_21FORTUNE — Every day we are inundated with ever more complex technologies in the products and services we are offered. Yet what we really crave is a return to simplicity and back-to-basics minimalism in design, form, and function.


Invoking the concept of simplicity might sound like heresy at a time when technology is generally regarded as a savior that makes our lives easier, more enjoyable and meaningful. That’s all true. But at the same time the onslaught of technology has also engendered big data, smartphones with a thousand features, and more apps to chose from than any sentient being could ever use in a lifetime. Our many digital devices come fitted with higher computational power and faster data communications than ever before. Cars are driving without us at the wheel. A wearable device monitors our heart rate, and our clothing is embedded with sensors.


The complexity of things has become so overwhelming that we want to turn it off. We want to enjoy the fruits of that technology in a simple and easy to understand way, whether it’s downloading movies or ordering takeout food for dinner. We can’t stop the march of complex technology — and in fact, we like the benefits that complexity brings us — but as designers, we realize that it’s time to keep that complexity neatly tucked away and out of sight.


Many services that do are hugely popular, like Netflix (NFLX) and Zipcar. And then there’s Snapchat, the fast-growing app that allows you to send photos that magically disappear within seconds of viewing. Users are now sending up to 200 million photos each day, which means this newcomer to the mobile messaging space is, in record time, rivaling Facebook (FB) in this service. You remember Facebook? My college-age daughter recently informed me thatFacebook is so, yesterday, while Snapchat is cool.


Here’s why: The fleeting, almost ephemeral connection that Snapchat offers is not only unique, but simple. How it works isn’t as critical as why it is so successful. Snapchat, says venture capital firm IVP, “creates a sense of excitement and an urgency of consumption that is rare in this era of information overload.”


Everyone can relate to being frustrated by an overly complex product experience. And today, we’re not just connected to a single product but to an ecosystem of multiple links and channels surrounding that product, which compounds the complexity. This is why products need to be simple too. Look at the disarmingly simple Nest thermostat from Nest Labs. In both looks (brushed metallic finish) and function (digital display and Wi-Fi connection) Nest transforms the otherwise mundane thermostat into an utterly simple yet stylish must-have smart device for your home.


At my firm, frog, our industrial designers are striving to create beautifully simple, elegant designs at a time when so many devices — our cameras, televisions and phones — have shrunken into flat, black lookalike rectangles. To imbue these rectangles with personality, designers must dig deeply to find the small, nuanced elements that will distinguish one from another. For the audio company Definitive Technology, for example, we developed a slim, compact portable speaker called Sound Cylinder whose unique cylindrical form, which acts as an integrated stand for any tablet, shifts the paradigm for Bluetooth speakers. To me, the simple name Sound Cylinder, says it all.


The products and services that I have detailed hit the sweet spot between exciting new technology and simple design, interaction and user experience. That will become increasingly important to businesses that want to capture consumer attention in a marketplace cluttered with products and services competing for attention. To do that we should never forget to wrap great technology in the basics of good form and function and looks. How simple.


It’s More than Survival

My daughter, Kara, and I

Me and my daughter, Kara.

I know that this is not a new thought, but women still struggle to balance their professional lives with caring for their families. I thought that after 20-plus years of working this would not be a topic that I would be discussing, but it is.  I always believed that gender didn’t matter. If you just worked hard, things would all work out.  Unfortunately, I have found that things aren’t that simple. Women are still juggling their careers and family life and living with the resulting stress.

Seriously, women have been doing this for a very long time, often without help from anyone. We juggle childcare and work responsibilities, organize the home and make sure that things run smoothly everywhere. For the longest time, I called it survival but I think it is a pure form of innovation.

I looked for research to see if working moms are more innovative then working dads but I couldn’t find any. I did find research that said we were more collaborative, adaptive, inclusive and intuitive. Doesn’t that sound like we are innovative and creative?

My mother worked most of my childhood. She didn’t have the resources that I now have but somehow she got it all done and was very good at her career. She was a role model for how to get things done with grace, without even realizing that she was creative. In fact, she would be the last person to call herself that. She is no different from the millions of women around the world that use their sheer will power to take care of their families while leading successful, professional lives. It isn’t an option to be bad at one or the other. Women use their adaptive behavior to their benefit.

As I think about why women are so good at multi-tasking, I am convinced that we are able to do it because we are great innovators and we have an innate entrepreneurial spirit. Everyday, all over the world, you find women devising ingenious ways to succeed at their many jobs. It’s in our DNA to make things work. We follow our intuition, which makes us natural leaders. We think outside the proverbial box without even knowing there is a box.  It’s just how we are wired. We don’t see barriers. We see a problem that needs resolution and we get it done.

I don’t think this topic ever gets old. We need to recognize that working women have a true entrepreneurial spirt, are great collaborators and have wonderful creative minds. I want my daughter to work in a world that understands this.


Managing Creativity

Everyone is creative. I really do believe that. We all cycle through a multitude of ideas on any given day. Some of the ideas stick with us for awhile and some are fleeting.
What I have come to realize is that coming up with the idea is the easier part. Even with a plethora of ideas not everyone has the ability to take those ideas and make them into something tangible. I have been managing creative people for 20+ years and I find that the step to make ideas come to life is the hardest part.
My job for many years has been to create an environment that allows creative people to produce their best work. Of course innovation and creativity is at the core of where I work. That is an important piece in making sure creative ideas can be manifested into reality. If you constantly have to justify creativity within any organization you are doomed.
If you can remove as many obstacles as possible then you can clear the way for creative people to be unencumbered and get those ideas produced.
Years ago I noticed that people would obsess about their benefits. The company was small and there was not a benefits administrator. They were frustrated that questions could not be answered easily and this distracted them from the work at hand. The team was spending a lot of time trying to figure out their employee benefits. We brought in a benefits administrator and a calmness prevailed. People were able to get their questions answered quickly. It was a lessoned learned for me. I would have never connected benefits administrator to creative execution but there is. I took away a lesson from the experience. By clearing obstacles we created a workplace where concentrating on creativity was the most important element. We created a much better culture to make things happen. It is a principle I have built on ever since.