What would our world be like if everyone followed the rules? Well, the computer would have never been invented by Grace Hopper. George Lucas wouldn’t have taken us to a galaxy far, far away in Star Wars, and Colonel Sanders would still be pumping gas instead of serving up Kentucky Fried Chicken. Chris Denson, author of Crushing the Box, believes that true innovators think way outside the box, and he knows this well.

Chris is an award-winning innovator himself, and the host of the Innovation Crush Podcast, which has more than 700,000 subscribers worldwide. In this episode, Chris shares how you can conquer the status quo and make great breakthroughs happen. So if you want to become a true innovator, this episode is for you.

Chris Denson: I think there was a period of time, almost like a year, I had a lot of different jobs. They were all cool and great and we did some cool things. Then I started seeing how innovation was important to different companies, different ways of thinking, even down to the individual. I was trying less to get a job but to make the right career move, and I knew what that was. It was very hard to stick to my guns.

Every meeting or meet and greet or interview or thing that I would go to was kind of like, “You’re a creative director?” “Yeah, but not really.” “Oh, you’re the technology guy?” “Kind of, it incorporates technology.” “Oh, so is it marketing or is it product development?” “Yes.”

You know, just going through these pain points that people misunderstand. They’re wanting to pigeonhole an individual or a business construct that they readily understand or identify.

“I really stuck to my guns, and it was almost a year before I even took a project.”

Finally, you find a family if you will from a business standpoint who understands your language.

I do a lot of references to the idea of misfit toys in the book. I’ve felt for a very long time like a misfit toy. Once I did find that home and found an ability to blossom, I wanted to give this handbook to other individuals and/or organizations.

A lot of organizations are like, “Oh, we want to be innovative.” It becomes such a blah industry word, right? It doesn’t mean anything on the surface. But there is something about what it means to you.

I wanted to be that guide to really translating what it is and how to build around it.

Finding Your Family

Charlie Hoehn: Tell me what it was like when you found your family? What was that like?

Chris Denson: I cried. No, I’m just kidding. I didn’t cry. I cried for hours. No, it was great.

I’d inherited this team and we had a brain storm, you know, the first couple of days are like, “Oh yeah, cool, here’s where the mail room is,” right? All that stuff.

Then you start getting your hands dirty, and I just remembered just being in awe at the things that were coming out of these people’s mouths. I don’t mean this in any sort of egotistical way but I think we’ve all been there at some point, where you are the smartest person in the room to some degree on a particular project or, you know, in a role.

“This is one of the first times I’d felt stupid “

I felt like out of my league, right? That was proof that I’m going to be stretched here creatively. I also have a rock star team of individuals around me that think way outside the box, right? Not even in the cliché way of saying, “Think outside the box or push the envelope.” Not only is that far out and weird, it’s actually super relevant and can be practical.

We talk a lot about how the innovator’s journey is a lonely one, because if you are an entrepreneur or an inventor, you see a product or service that should be the world, so you literally see the world in a different way than most people do currently. To get that vision pushed out is like the best thing since sliced bread.

Coming home to roost in a way that feels familiar but it’s also challenging at the same time. To me, the combination is sort of indicative of endless possibilities.

Innovation Unfolding

Charlie Hoehn: Tell me about the first time that you sort of witnessed innovation, massive innovation, sort of unfolding in front of you in the workplace?

Chris Denson: Easy; there was a period of time where — this is kind of a fun story because I was the first marketing director of the New York film academy, pretty straight forward film school and I thought what I was doing was interesting, right? Because there was no blueprint, they had never had a marketing director so everything was like a blank canvas. A short while after being there, I had an opportunity to work for the American Film Institute, which is a film school.

But, what I didn’t know was that they also had a digital content lab, which was literally an exploration of marriages of technology and entertainment while there were four of us who ran the lab, we would recruit volunteer mentors from around the world to sort of workshop projects for six to eight months at a time.

Everyone did it for the camaraderie, for the networking, and just for the free-spirited creative thinking.

So when you’re bringing in people from Switzerland or you’re bringing in the Nolan Bushnell who created Atari and Chuck E. Cheese or a Bill Duke or Nan Dela Pena who was doing VR before we were talking about it like we are today. It’s really just unbridled thinking and asking “what if?”

“Our mandate was to be three years out into the future, which doesn’t seem like a long time. You’re an octogenarian creatively by that time.”

We did a bunch of projects but I always say, for every project I can tell you about, there’s 50 on the cutting room floor that didn’t make it for whatever reason.

You know, it’s like your artist’s favorite album, you know? Or your favorite artist’s album where it’s like, “Yeah, those were 11 great songs. You should hear the other ones we recorded that we couldn’t get the sample cleared or it wasn’t done in time,” whatever the thing is, there’s that.

So just to be in that room and be in that company and not only that, give the ideas away, you know? The AFI was non-profit, so every year, alongside the AFI fest, we would hold an event called AFI Digifest and we would showcase the projects and be like, “Look, if you have some funds and a team and you want to go build this thing that we just laid out a blueprint on, please do.”

It was great. We were working with the PlayStation, working with Los Angeles County Museum of Arts, Leonardo Dicaprio Foundation, HBO, ABC, Family and just sort of being inventive around how people will experience the world.

Charlie Hoehn: That’s awesome, I can’t imagine the types of people that you’re running into and collaborating with, that’s super exciting.

Chris Denson: It really is fantastic. I mean, to this day, if I go to a Digital Hollywood event or a CES or you know, any of this kind of like future forward thinking, gatherings, running into those people is like seeing your old college roommate.

You kind of pickup where you left off, but I think that’s really what it speaks to as far as the human curation side of the innovation process, right? Making sure you are in good company and with people who you can vibe with but also like, stretch imagination and add your point of view. Kind of do away with the normal constructs and guidelines that were given, at least for a period of time and see what happens on the other side.

Crushing the Box Takeaway

Charlie Hoehn: What would you say is the biggest take away in Crushing the Box, the one thing that you really want listeners to remember?

Chris Denson: To not read the book. In a way, you know? Or maybe to like, take the book and then do it your own way, right? That’s why it’s 10 Essential Rules for Breaking Essential Rules, right? Everybody says, “This is how you do it,” and then you know, if you’re going to say, “You know what? I don’t want to do it that way.” How do you do that?

I think even the process of innovation in and of itself is iterative, right? It’s always evolving, you’re always evolving as an individual. Within that, the word “individual” is important.

We all talk about failure like “fail hard, fail fast.” A, nobody really wants to do that. B, that we’ve heard that story enough from an editorial standpoint.

“I’m not saying that this is not an important thing to embrace but there’s life, you know? Life happens.”

I have two kids and a wife and it’s like, there’s places I can’t do and things I can’t do or things that I can’t get to because, you know, I want to be attentive to my family and that, you know, is sometimes at the risk of better performance or showing up in a place or kind of disrupting my own creative flow. So there’s that sort of human component to what we all experience as innovators.

As Troy Carter said in one of my interviews, he said, “I’m looking for founders who are willing to drive a mac truck through a cul de sac,” you know? It’s this emotional fortitude it takes to make great ideas happen, because a great idea doesn’t happen on its own.

The innovation’s also just a process by which you get it done. That is an arduous set of tasks. I think that’s sort of it. It’s just A, embrace your humanity and own it. The ups and downs are okay. But B, these are very lose guidelines, right? At the end of it, you start to construct what works for you.

Swim Like an Otter

Charlie Hoehn: Let’s go through some of these guidelines and just give a maybe a quick explanation or a story to couple with each of them. You say to “swim like an otter”. Why swim like an otter?

Chris Denson: It’s like four sentences, you’re like, “Okay, I guess I’ll swim like an otter then.” No, there’s a guy I interviewed named Dan Goods, and Dan is NASA’s artisan resident. Official title is visual strategist, but he’s been there for like 15 years. He helps craft missions, he turns geek speak into creative output, he’s responsible for doing public art exhibitions and experiences for translating science into understandable information for people like you and I, the layman who doesn’t understand astrophysics. How we actually, from a scientific perspective, get to Mars.

During our conversation, he was telling me about a professor he had in art school who gave him an assignment to draw an otter. He did it and turned it in and the professor said, “All right, in a couple of days, meet me at the pool,” and he had Dan get in the water and swim like an otter.

“The whole premise of that chapter is about empathy.”

When we’re creating things, when we’re inventing, when we’re innovating I guess is making sure you have empathy and a deep and understanding and immersive understanding of who you’re creating for, why you’re creating it, asking those unasked questions and not only that, going there and being a part of what the community that you’re trying to affect.

So, you know, the imaginative example we put in there was this idea that if you have some startup idea around NASCAR, yes, you can watch YouTube videos, you can read links, you can make phone calls and talk to NASA or NASCAR and brainstorm, but nothing like going to a NASCAR race and getting the dirt splashed on your face and standing in line for an hour and a half to get a beer and seeing how people are physically meandering around this space or next to you.

Incomplete Data

Charlie Hoehn: What is the typical company’s way of doing things? They just do research online I guess?

Chris Denson: Well, the data shows that companies…I’m being sarcastic because that’s usually the first thing we hear, right? It’s like, “the data shows, you know, males, 18 and 34, do this.” You’re like, “Okay, what else do we know?”

They also over index in this category, right? “They gravitate towards music.” Okay. Which don’t get me wrong, data is great information, you know?

We’re all human beings. The data is going to be only indicative of what I did over the course of a week or whatever period of time that we’ve monitored this individual.

“It doesn’t necessarily show you my emotional state.”

Maybe I gave a negative Yelp review because my mom died a week before and I’ve just been in a crappy mood for the past week. The sandwich was fine; I was mad, right?

A restaurant a couple of years ago was getting a ton of negative reviews, the same sort of reviews. It was, “The food is always cold, it takes a long time.” The same sort of set of negative comments. So, this restaurant ended up mounting cameras inside and they were like, “We’ve got to understand what’s happening.”

What they found was that most of the people who were coming to this restaurant were when their food was served, they’d spend anywhere from three to five minutes taking pictures of their food and posting it. So of course, by the time you start eating it…

Then, you go, “Oh, this is cold, can you send it back?” And then there’s a delay that continues to happen.

Now, the data would have just said, “We need to get our food out fast, how do we get our food out faster?”

“We keep trying to solve the wrong problem.”

To immerse yourself or at least put a camera in there that allows you to see, “Well, what’s really going on here?”

It gives you a little bit of another vantage point on how you problem solve.

Eat Your Brain

Charlie Hoehn: So what is “eat your brain”? That is one of the guidelines in your book, what’s that about? Is that an Indiana Jones, Temple of Doom type thing?

Chris Denson: The chapter explores this idea of being your own size experiment, exploring appetite for experimentation and how you treat your process or your company like a scientist would. How do you want to understand the “what if” statements.

The hidden gem of that project was a first step in an exploration of how we could use wearable technology to actually examine somebody’s experience in any moment of time.

There’s biometric technology out there that can help us understand the emotional state of a customer who enters a JC Penny. Yes, the data shows and yes the statistics show, but there’s no better data than my emotional state at any given moment.

Did I eat your chocolate and you know, my heart rate increased and I was delighted? Or did I tense up and was it bitter? Right? There’s all these different ways of doing it. That was sort of that first step in that direction.

“So how do you develop experiments and do them again and build on them overtime?”

We can use biometric information if we so choose or if it’s readily available to us or if we redesign around it to understand what those emotional pain points are.

That’s what that eating your brain experience was designed to take a baby step toward. Like if we can just give them an experiential moment and we give people a fun time, we can then take the next step of like track that measurement in a more serious or elongated way.

Freedom to Innovate

Charlie Hoehn: Now you have a chapter called “kick some balls”. What is that about?

Chris Denson: It was in “Idiocracy” where it’s like, “Kick me in the balls!” It’s like the shows I used to watch.

Now, I’ve had an amazing conversation with a guy by the name of Jon Werner, who is the head of innovation at Adidas or at the time we did our conversation he was and that year, they had just won the CES Best Innovation Award, which was for a connected soccer ball and, which you could kick it, it would tell you what is the speed of your foot, the rotation, what point of your foot you hit it on.

Now when I asked Jon, I was like, “All right so you run innovation at Adidas, what does your company hold you responsible for? What are they expecting you to deliver?”

And he said, “Nothing.”

The whole chapter starts to explore this idea of innovating for the sake of the practice and allowing a team or a group of individuals or putting aside a set of resources just for exploration. How do you assemble the right kind of team around that to be responsible with the corporation’s money?

“You don’t want to just like, “Well, two years later we’ve developed nothing.”

You want to have smart people in place where like, “Oh what if we did this?” And that’s just one project of probably a dozen or so that he’s got. I mean everything from regenerating treads on sneakers to sneakers that automatically track your mileage and your impact and where you are placing your feet during your run, all sorts of things.

But there’s something to be said about relieving the pressure on an individual or a team that is designed for innovation.

That could be like startups answering to an investor. “You know what? Give them a longer leash or at least for a period of time.”

What’s the best ecosystem to create around innovation to keep it moving forward?

Helping Innovation Thrive

Charlie Hoehn: What have you found to be the ideal circumstances in environment or what have you seen for innovation to thrive?

Chris Denson: Some of the best innovations comes from constraint. This idea that look, we have two weeks, we have to do something that has never been done, we have $3,000 and it’s just you and six other people.

You have this defined very tight box that you’re working in, and even in that instance, it’s still behaving freely, right?

You don’t answer to the constraint, of course – you fall for whatever barriers you may have. But the emotional state even in times when your back’s up against the wall is still one of freedom.

It sounds like somebody in prison, now when I say it out loud. It’s like, “They can take my body but they can’t take my mind!”

But it is true right? So while Jon is one end of the spectrum and there’s other teams like Guive Balooch who runs L’Oreal’s innovation incubator. And even a team I run at OMD or like somewhere in the middle, right? We do have to answer to clients into the agency but we are given a long leash to be explored and the company’s design such that they trust us.

“Trust is a big part of this whole equation, and we talk about that as well.”

You know, Adidas trusts Jon and his team to deliver something. Similarly, OMD trusts our team to curate and to find and to explore and bring back relative things.

And not just come back with like, “Hey, look at this foldable bicycle.” You’re like, “Okay great. What are we going to do now?” And if these teams are formed, they know what your business goals are, they know where the company might be pivoting, they are informed enough to make sound explorations.

But to answer your question, I don’t think there is a right amount of freedom or not.

Highlights from Crushing the Box

Charlie Hoehn: What’s your favorite story in the book?

Chris Denson: I’m going to go with the very last chapter, sort of the bonus chapter. This is like the ethos of the book, which is where we set up the central rules.

We’re breaking the central rules, and it starts off to saying that, “Look you may try everything in this book, and some of it will work, some of it won’t or whatever. But you now have enough information and hopefully process by which you can do it anyway.”

“Whatever that vision is you have, the world is telling you that it is impossible. Keep doing it anyway.”

The chapter is called “Be Dumb Enough to Do it Anyway,” and that’s rooted in a story from a friend of mine about the name of Victor Pineda.

Victor is severely disabled. He has been in the wheelchair for I think since he was about five or six years old. He has a PhD from Stanford, he is a filmmaker, he was appointed by President Obama to be sort of an ambassador to persons with disabilities.

I actually got to work with him on a project in Nairobi where the UN had changed the policy on civil rights for persons with disabilities, and we were there to implement new ways of reporting and communicating amongst the entire continent for persons with disabilities sort of violation stat.

But to see what this guy does to get up and do the thing that he loves, despite what the physical world around him is like or despite how people look at him, is pretty amazing.

We are in airports in developing countries and people are coming up to me going like, “Oh my gosh is your friend okay?”

“I’m like, “Ask him, he’s right here.”

I got to experience that once, for him it is a daily thing. He has a breathing machine and the breathing machine breathes for him, and he has back up batteries for that and so on and so forth. But married, kids, also just an innovator in his own right and an inventor of sorts, so there’s this triumphant emotional connection with the innovation story.

Not because we are trying to make a name for ourselves or because we’re trying to be clever business people and all the things are part of this as well, but the true innovation actually comes out of your personal passion and what you’re willing to go through to see it through.

Innovation Crush Podcast

Charlie Hoehn: So you’ve done the Innovation Crush podcast. If people were listening to this and they wanted to follow you on there, what episode do you recommend they start with?

Chris Denson: Dan Goods is a good one. Anytime I am asked what’s my favorite episode I go to that one. I also go to Nolan Bushnell and Brent Bushnell, I mentioned it a little bit earlier, they created Chuck E. Cheese and Atari. His son has a company called Two Bit Circus, and they are doing some amazing work. I’ve gotten to do a few projects with them as well, but it was a fun dynamic.

There is something about passing the baton, and how do you do that? All of this stuff that we do, yes it is great for the world and for our careers but the generational thinking is how do you past the baton?

“You and I will be long forgotten in 100 years. Maybe even less than that, if I keep it up.”

At one point I asked them both a trait that they admire about the other that they wished they had. To hear them say that’s so good, the humanization of the innovation story.

More recently, Linda Boff the CMO of GE, newly appointed relatively speaking. They’re on a mission to hire 20,000 women by 2020, and the way they think about GE as a consumer brand is pretty remarkable. I think that is a really great example of thinking different.

A phrase I love is how you see yourselves is how the world sees you. So GE doesn’t see themselves the way the world sees them. They continue to show us time and time again that this is who we are. It is pretty fascinating.

Connecting with Listeners and Readers

Charlie Hoehn: What’s been your favorite thing that’s come about because of the podcast?

Chris Denson: Maybe it’s just how I am built, but I like when I get the really unexpected response. I had an interview with Chamillionaire, who advises a ton of startups, has multiple businesses, and became a resident at California’s largest venture fund. We were talking about hip-hop. And how hip-hop was just a vessel for him to get out of his neighborhood. We talked about business and technology and all that stuff.

“This guy’s friend says she listened to that episode and she quit smoking.”

Lo and behold, there was one point in time where Chamillionaire says, “You know, I never drink or smoke because I just want to be clear. I want my experience of the world to be one of clarity,” and that was her takeaway.

These surprise nuggets pop up that resonate with people.

The other one is that I discovered a tweet, they didn’t even tweet at me or the show or anything else. It was State University and it was like “Listening to the Andy Walsh episode.”

Andy Walsh was the head of human performance at Redbull and they basically streamed an entire episode during their all staff meeting. So they’ve got the whole staff gathered up and they streamed 42, 43 minutes, however long that conversation was at their meeting.

They literally sat around in the conference room and listened to an interview. That was super surprising.

A Challenge from Chris Denson

Charlie Hoehn: Can you leave our listeners maybe with a challenge, something they can do from your book this week that can improve their work or change their life in some way?

Chris Denson: Stop smoking crack, kids.

No, I think the first thing that comes to mind and maybe it is not the best exercise but it is also is in the book is to have fun. There’s actually an exercise that I recommend, which is take an old like a throwback series like a Happy Days or Love Boat or something that we’re all familiar with that came out a long time ago.

“Just play a game and say, “What if the show is coming out in 2019?”

“How would it live as a brand, and how would we market it using technology and innovation?”

Some of the examples I get, at least in the case of Happy Days would be like, you know, maybe Spotify would have a bump functionality because if you remember, Fonzarelli used to bump the juke box. He never put money in it and just bumped it and it would come on and it would play his song, right?

Or Pat Marita for instance, owning the diner, maybe you did a Japanese-American fusion food truck that toured around to different cities and festivals and things like that? You know, maybe Joanie and Chachi have Tinder profiles.

Charlie: Maybe the Fonz jumps over a virtual shark.

Chris: Exactly, see? You got it. It’s a fun exercise that doesn’t have any consequence, right? Because most of us are on assignment of some sorts as opposed to just creating for the sake of creating.

“Give yourself a set of circumstances or products that you can just experiment on and aren’t your own. There’s no downside to doing it.”

Charlie: Anywhere our listeners can follow you?

Chris: @innovationcrush or @densonology. I think you can find most of my musings. follow me everywhere. I’m Google-able, Chris Denson. There is another Chris Denson who plays basketball and usually he’s the number one searched so I’m trying to beat him. Please just Google me guys. He and I are actually friends on Twitter. So I think he’ll welcome the challenge.