In Convo: Nick Partridge & Chuck Kent on Innovation
The two talk shifting business priorities and shaping a culture where innovation can blossom. Key to the strategy: dinner and drinks.
This article appears as it was originally published by Chuck Kent on leadtheconversation.net.
In a marketing-and-innovation-saturated world, is it still possible to “eat your competition’s lunch”? Yes. But you may have to do it at supper time.
At least, that’s the indication from one of the newest entries into the conversation leadership field, the Innovation Supper Club, from Cincinnati-based LPK. Granted, there are invitation-only luncheons, and plenty of breakfast meetings to go to, but the notion of a Supper Club promised a certain …panache. So I decided to interview Nick Partridge, senior innovation director at LPK and a driving force behind this traveling food-for-thought-leadership show, to see how that promise is playing out.
Chuck Kent: From appearances—such as your website homepage—the firm has been principally projecting itself as a brand design consultancy. Why the focus now on innovation?
Nick Partridge: You’re 100% right. We’re a 33-year-old consultancy, headquartered in Cincinnati, Ohio. There are 275 of us, the bulk sitting in Cincinnati, the remainder in other four offices, two in Europe and two in Asia.
And that is where our heritage is, in brand and design. But if you know what brands are up against, the one universal element is the desire for growth—the desire for top-line growth. And while that can be answered inside of traditional branding and design efforts, often times there needs to be a focused effort in driving top-line growth through the development of revenue generating products, services and experiences. Those can be incremental, or they can be more of a transformational variety. Both are excellent.
The goal there is top-line growth, and that’s where I’ve been focusing my career for the last eight years, and where LPK’s work was naturally taking it for the last ten. So we’ve continued to double down on our efforts around innovation.
If you know what brands are up against, the one universal element is the desire for growth.
CK: Which seems to suggest that it’s not enough for brand design consultancies to wait for clients to bring their innovations in—you need to help them with that innovation process. Is that fair?
NP: You’re right. I’m in that R&D group, and so once a year we field research with our current and prospective clients—not as a sales call, but as a way for us to understand the challenges they’re up against. And one of the things that came out is that there’s no shortage of ideas.
There are many things holding back innovation efforts, but it’s definitely not for lack of ideas. There are some fierce roadblocks, specifically internally, that our corporate innovation clients are up against, and we need to do a better job of helping them take those seeds of ideas and turn them into new business, new products, new services. But we all know how difficult it is, especially inside of an established company with a core business, to stand up a new business.
CK: So you’ve referred to your team, I think, as the Insights Innovation team, and you’re also part of R&D at LPK. What I really want to talk to you about today is how you’re supporting those functions with what I believe is a fairly new initiative: the Innovation Supper Club. Can you tell us how that works?
NP: I’ll give you a sense about the genesis of this before I talk about how it works. As I mentioned, a year ago we fielded research that was a mix of qualitative and quantitative. And you know, sometimes research simply confirms things you sense intuitively, after having done this work for many years—like the fact that many corporate innovators, while they might have a team, can feel like lone wolves. They’re seen as the outsiders inside of their companies. There’s a core business that’s humming along, and sometimes they’re regarded as almost a distraction, an annoyance, because innovators are naturally the people who are challenging the status quo.
From that realization, we decided we needed to do a better job of creating forums for folks, from across industries, to come together inside of a city. Particularly where we’re headquartered—in Cincinnati and its surrounding mid-sized cities—there’s an innovation community that’s growing, and we want to help foster and grow it even further.
So these Supper Clubs feature some friendly faces—clients—plus folks we’ve wanted to work with, but haven’t gotten around to doing so. And then there’s a dash of what we call provocateurs and entrepreneurs. These people are the pacemakers in their cities, and pacemakers in their own fields, but not necessarily representing corporate innovation.
CK: I’d like to back up to something you said a minute ago, relative to the research you do with clients. It sounds like these in-house innovators are sometimes considered to be annoying gnats, and that they’re frequently getting swatted down. So is it fair to say that they’re having trouble getting the innovation conversation started internally, and that you saw both the need and the opportunity to create the conversation externally?
NP: Yes. I think we have a little bit of empathy for our clients, so you’ll find we’ve gathered birds of a feather at these events. It’s not that they’re total lone wolves, but in a small group like the Supper Club, a space where we bring like-minded innovators together, they can share their challenges and also get excited about some of the tactics and strategies being used in one industry that can be applied to another. We always make sure to curate attendees so they’re from non-competing organizations, which allows for a more free-flowing conversation.
In a small group like the Supper Club, a space where we bring like-minded innovators together, they can share their challenges.
CK: So you’re helping them get together, and creating an opportunity for conversation—but also positioning LPK as the nexus of that conversation.
NP: Yes. And each supper has a loose theme; we try not to strangle the convivial time with too much structure. The supper in San Francisco focused on the benefits and burdens of being big, so that event featured largely corporate innovators. In Cincinnati, we hosted along with Primera Blue Cross, which is a Seattle-based group that happened to be in Cincinnati attending a conference on research … so that evening was focused on healthcare.
CK: Can you describe one of your favorite suppers so far—what you covered, what you think people got out of the event or what LPK got out of it?
NP: I’ve been fortunate to attend nearly all of these, so I see patterns emerge. It’s also really exciting to have LPK folks continue the conversation from one city to the next. We’ll often ask ourselves, “All right, what themes emerged? Where was conversation flowing? And how do we want to continue that in the next city?”
And so, for the last few suppers, we’ve been talking a lot about influencing without authority. It may be because of an individual’s stage of career or the maturity of their particular program, but they find themselves needing to influence those around them, often not having the authority to get people to act the way they wish.
And so, for three or four suppers, we’ve asked attendees how they’ve succeeded in influencing without authority, drawing out some really clear tactics and sharing those. You can follow the progression, which is that this is an ongoing conversation in the Supper Clubs. We gather the input, aggregate a lot of the tactics shared, share it all back out with our smaller community and then give it freely to the external world.
So all of this really does come from an earnest place of radical generosity. We want to create a platform for bringing people together, to give freely the information that we’ve aggregated, because people have been so generous in giving their perspectives.
CK: I like the phrase “radical generosity.” One of my other interviewees, Andy Crestodina, said something similar in the context of content marketing—he described it as needing to be a “contest of generosity.”
As to this sequence of conversations that you’ve started and just described, is that something you anticipated and aimed for, or was that sort of an organic result of getting this going?
NP: We try as much as possible to take our own medicine, the recommendations we provide to our clients. And one of those is, obviously, biased toward action, toward figuring out ways to experiment with a really clear hypothesis—but in low-stakes, inexpensive ways to get a read on an idea. And so, when we had this initial insight provided by the research—that corporate innovators often feel like lone wolves—we immediately said, “All right, well, we need to do something about that, we need to help and provide that platform for connection.”
There are a lot of different ways that we could do it, and rather than an elaborate plan, we said, “All right, let’s try it out with our community here in Cincinnati,” and then the next step was, “Okay, we’ve gotten some interesting traction, this is all very inexpensive, the next time we’re out of the city for a client meeting, let’s host one … We’ll already be on the ground, we’re already going to be buying clients dinner, why not gather a few more interesting people around the table?”
When we start these experiments, we have a hypothesis, and we definitely have a minimum success criterion. And it’s not what you’d think, not the revenue that’s driven from these conversations. The goal we gave ourselves with the Supper Club was the number of conversations that follow the events, and how many additional people are brought into the fold.
CK: I like your metrics. If I understand correctly, they come down to, “How many new conversations did the last supper engender?”
CK: Backing up again a little bit into your last comments. It sounds as if, rather than just launching this Innovation Supper Club as a wholly-formed forum, a big initiative, you started with appetizers, as it were, testing it out and letting it grow from there.
NP: Exactly. Imagine there’s a funnel, right. On the furthest left side are the dozens of ideas that we’re brimming with, and then on the right side there are the things that we actually can put big resources behind and dedicate ourselves to. And what we try to do is keep the middle of that funnel as fat as possible.
And so for every one experiment that succeeds and is shared broadly to the world, there are probably three or four that fail for one reason or another. But we fail fast, and we fail inexpensively, and we fail in ways that are low stakes.
CK: OK, do you want to be bold enough to share your absolute worst idea or biggest failure?
NP: Oh good. I don’t think this was the worst idea—you can imagine there was an incremental idea here—but we said, “You know what, we should do breakfast. Everybody’s having such a good time at supper, maybe we’ll do a smaller group. And I have to say, they haven’t been a failure, but they haven’t been a rousing success as much as the suppers.
CK: In other words, lubricating with caffeine is not as good as lubricating with cocktails.
NP: I think that’s a safe assumption. Maybe people don’t want to wake up at 8 am; there could be a lot of reasons why this hasn’t been as successful. But we don’t mull over it for too long. It had logic to it, we’ll move on.
CK: Live events always present surprises, good and bad. Do any other unexpected results or learnings stand out for you?
NP: I would be remiss not to mention that it takes some courage for folks from different industries and different companies to come to an event like this.
Often we’re asking just a single person to come, with no “plus one” on the invitation. That’s because we’re trying to create a forum where they can exchange freely, and there’s something helpful about that anonymity. We acknowledge that from the moment they arrive, to let them know we recognize that there’s a bit of leap of faith here to come to an event like this, to spend three hours with relative strangers.
It takes some courage for folks from different industries—different companies—to come to an event like this.
What’s satisfying is that, by the end of that meal—and because they’re all facing universal challenges and share some universal ambitions—these people find some real community in those three hours together.
CK: What is the understanding going in? Is it that whatever is said at supper stays within the supper crowd, or is it that you’re creating a new knowledge base for people to share more broadly?
NP: One thing that’s really helped us is the fact that we’re careful not to include competing companies. And we share the guest list before people arrive, so they have an understanding of who will be there. We do have a couple of ground rules, and one of them is to respect privacy but exchange freely.
CK: It sounds like you’re generating some interesting thinking, some cross-pollination certainly. Do you have any vision of sharing it more broadly, via other types of contact?
NP: There are plans to expand it, but right now we’re trying to keep it small, to keep engagement high. The last thing you want is hundreds of thousands of people, but low engagement. So we’ll grow that steadily.
CK: You haven’t been doing this for all that long. When did this start?
The last thing you want is hundreds of thousands of people, but low engagement.
NP: We did our first one in Boston in September 2016, in conjunction with a Design Management Institute Conference. So we’ve hosted about ten or eleven at this point.
CK: It’s still a relatively young initiative, so rather than asking about results, let me ask what the indicators are at this stage. I know you said the objective wasn’t direct lead generation, but what do you think you are seeing relative to any boost in awareness, relationship building, new business development, et cetera, rising out of the Innovation Supper Club?
NP: A this point for us, it’s about relationship building, about being a good steward and a good platform provider for these conversations and this community. We can certainly point to new business development and success on that front, and that’s how we keep the lights on and the doors open. But we want to know the people who are really passionate about branding, design and, in particular, innovation. We want to be at the center of their conversations, with our finger on the pulse of what all of these folks are up against.
CK: It sounds like you’re playing the long game.
CK: A final question: how does one get invited to the Innovation Supper Club?
NP: Well, there are a number of different ways. You can go to our website, where you can request an invitation and also see the cities that will be hosting. In this 2018 season, we’ll be in Singapore, Chicago, Pittsburgh … our office in Geneva will be hosting an event as well … and then, to round it out, we’ll be in St. Louis and Minneapolis.
You can also find me on all the social media channels that you wish, on Twitter and LinkedIn, you can contact me there. If there’s a seat open, you’re welcome. We’ve got a long table, and we’re excited to have folks join.
Chuck Kent, the Chief Conversation Officer at Lead the Conversation, works with executives to help them more easily create authentic, compelling thought leadership content—and to lead industry conversations. He is a writer, brand strategist, content creator and expert interviewer. Chuck is also a Contributing Editor for Branding Magazine, for which he created the monthly Branding Roundtable.
Nicholas Partridge is senior innovation director at LPK—and he’s obsessed with creating “the new”: be it product, service, brand or experience. Nick is a veteran innovator, having partnered with the world’s most powerful brands and scrappy upstarts on their hairiest innovation challenges. Prior to joining LPK, he served as co-head of Idea Couture (NYC), as innovation director at Fahrenheit 212 (NYC) and as industrial designer at Essential (Boston). He enjoys a good game of soccer and never met a lobster roll he didn’t like. Find him on Twitter at @KnewNewNeu.