Claudia Kotchka on Innovation and Creativity

As Vice President of Design Innovation and Strategy, Claudia Kotchka brought design into the DNA of Procter and Gamble. In her 31 year career at P&G, Claudia moved from marketing to management and ultimately to innovation leadership.

She currently consults for Fortune 500 companies interested in innovation, how to innovate differently, and how to change the rules of the game. Beyond consulting, Claudia is a member of the Board of Directors of Loblaw Companies Ltd, teaches at The Stanford executive education program, and is an IDEO Fellow. Claudia appears in our latest IDEO U course, Leading for Creativity, alongside the course instructor and IDEO CEO, Tim Brown.

We sat down with Claudia to hear her perspective on design leadership, creativity, and purpose, and to learn what it means to be a leader in innovation.

Claudia Kotchka on Innovation and Creativity

Tell us a story about a creative team you were a part of while working in innovation leadership. What made that team special and what made it thrive?

The first team I was on that was really unique was a P&G team that worked with IDEO. I’d been on many creative teams prior, and at P&G we had our own approach to product development.

Working with IDEO, I learned about leading a creative team, what creativity can do, how to empower creativity in others, and how to really understand your consumer in a different way—in ways we had not done before. Deeply understanding the consumer is essential to innovation.

That new process was an amazing experience for me. In addition to building consumer empathy, low resolution rapid prototyping was eye opening. We had never done anything like that. Our idea of prototyping was pretty much sharing a finished product with focus groups. We’d ask, what do you think? But people don’t tell you what they think; it’s not effective at really understanding the consumer or your idea.

With IDEO, we walked in with prototypes made of duct tape, pipe cleaners, and paper plates. I was horrified. I was standing back because I was embarrassed, thinking  I cannot believe we’re walking into someone’s house with this thing. But it was just magical because you realize that the consumer looks at this prototype, imagines it, and quickly realizes, these people need my help. That’s exactly what you want, you want their help. You want them to build with you and help create, and you can’t do that when you show them something finished.

What’s the difference between test marketing and rapid prototyping in your experience?

When you’re trying to sell something in a test market, you’re looking more at scalability and size of market. You’re already pretty much finished with the product itself. The whole idea of rapid prototyping is on the front end. In the beginning, you want to keep iterating the prototype until the consumer falls in love with it. I used to tell people, when the consumer falls in love with it, then you put it in a test market.

I don’t think rapid prototyping is a substitute for test markets. Test markets serve a completely different purpose, more related to how big the market is and how to market something to the customer.

We took Febreze into a test market and marketed it all wrong. We had it marketed as something to spray on your drapes, spray on your sofa, and it bombed. So then we went into the market and found the people who loved Febreze. They were using it for shoes, clothes, all kinds of things, but they weren’t spraying it on drapes. So, we had to rethink how to market it.

Those are the kinds of things you learn in a test market. Prototyping is to ensure you have the idea right and test marketing is to determine how you market that idea and how big can it be based on how you market it. Both are important.

Tell us about the impact of your P&G creative team.

The impact of the team was to completely change people’s minds about what innovation is and looks like. What mattered was learning a new process, that, “Whoa, this is not innovation as we’ve ever known it.”

Historically we had lots of quantitative data. For example, data about laundry and why people do laundry and what they worry about concerning laundry. We would create technology against that quantitative data. It was a very different model than starting with the consumer, understanding them, listening to them, and trying to figure out what they need by watching them rather than starting out with data.

It transformed the way we thought about what an innovation process would look like. That was the biggest impact. An eye-opening effect on everyone who was on the team. That was huge.


“Purpose is the starting point to innovation. When companies truly care about their customer, they will be able to innovate.”


I learned a lot from one of the initial projects when some of the P&G team went to Palo Alto to work with IDEO. One of the women on the team called me after 2 weeks and said, “Claudia, this project is a disaster. We have to shut this down immediately. These people have no process and it's complete chaos. They have no idea what they’re doing. We need to stop and teach them the P&G way.

And I said, “Well, they have a pretty good track record. Why don’t we just go with the flow and see what happens.” In the end, she turned out to be a huge supporter. But the process looks like chaos to people who have never experienced it before. It was a big learning for me. I realized I have to prepare future teams for this process and let them know this looks like chaos, but it’s not chaos. It is new and different. The methodology was so different from what people were used to they thought it was wrong.

Why do you think the world needs creativity now more than ever?

I believe David Kelley’s premise that everyone is creativethat they start that way, and school beats it out of them. By the time you get in the corporate environment, you’ve lost a lot of belief in your own creativity. But you can’t solve the world’s problems if you’re not willing to be creative and look at things differently.

One of the key limiters of creativity is asking the wrong question. There’s this quote from a designer, “don’t ask me to build a bridge; show me the canyon,” that reflects this limitation. Because maybe a bridge isn’t the answer. If you want to get from side A to side B and you ask me to build a bridge, you’ve already given me the answer. When in fact, the best answer may not be to build a bridge, it might be to take a boat or a zip line from A to B.

When you start a creative project, you start with broadening the questions to leave more solutions open. So one of the first steps in creative problem solving is—don’t put the solution in the question. The next one is to be open to different ideas and ways of doing things. Test things you know you’re never going to do.

When Frank Gehry designs buildings he'll show a prototype to the client and get comments. But when he returns he’ll show something completely different, something that wasn’t even close to the first prototype. He does this because he is testing boundaries.  


“When companies want to work with me the first question I ask is, why do you want to innovate? If they say to make more money, that’s the wrong answer.”


I think the whole idea of creativity is to be open to seeing the world differently. That’s another reason you need to have diverse thinking on your team. There’s a myth about the creative inventor sitting in a room by themselves, but I don’t think that’s what happens. When you get diverse thinking at the table—you get magic.

The other thing I learned is that leading creativity is different than leading operations. Leading operations is all about reliability. You want to ship something every day and you want to make your numbers. Creativity is about how you set your team up for success.

I used to think of myself as chief barrier buster. My job was not to have the answer, but to give my team whatever they needed to create the answer. It was a shift from the way management is generally thought of, where as a senior manager you must have the answer. That’s not true at all. Particularly when you’re working on wicked problems and you want the team to be creative with the solutions; my role was to give them whatever they needed to solve it. It could be people, could be skills, training, money, space, anything. Mostly it’s important to give them freedom. They have to know they have the freedom to explore. It’s a different leadership style when you’re managing and leading creativity.

What are you working on now in your leadership style with respect to creativity?

When I meet with companies, teams, and people, I want to inspire them. That’s my goal. If someone says, she inspired me, then I feel like I was a success. Because I have a genuine belief that everyone is creative and can do great things, and sometimes they just need to be inspired. So that’s my goal when I lead.

After a meeting I had with a company a few weeks ago, the group said they felt inspired to break all the rules. And I was thrilled! 

Again, it’s not about having answers. I want people to believe in themselves and feel great. If they do, they can do great things. I’ve always found that. When I was at P&G I always believed if you expect greatness from people you’ll get it. I assumed that every person that worked for me was the best. My job was to make sure that I matched their skills to the work—to set them up for success.

By inspiring them you’re instilling purpose into what they’re doing.

Absolutely. Purpose is key to innovation. You can’t innovate without purpose. You have to know why you’re there.

When companies want to work with me the first question I ask is, why do you want to innovate? If they say to make more money—that’s the wrong answer. And if their company’s mission and purpose is to make more money—same thing, wrong answer.

That’s never going to get any company where they want to go. If you want to innovate, your employees have to be inspired. What inspires employees is the customer. They want to make a difference in peoples’ lives.

The first thing we did at P&G when I started as VP of Design Innovation was a complete renewal of the company’s purpose. We took down monitors that were all over the company showing the stock prices and replaced them with pictures of our consumers. We hired a National Geographic photographer and sent him to ten cities around the world. He shot emotional pictures of consumers doing things in everyday life: washing their hair, washing clothes, washing dishes, diapering babies. They were phenomenal. We plastered the photos everywhere. At the entrance to corporate headquarters, 20-foot tall walls were covered with giant photographs of consumers. Now when people walk in the door they know who they are serving.

Purpose is the starting point to innovation. When companies truly care about their customer, they will be able to innovate. Peter Drucker, the godfather of business management, said a company’s purpose is to satisfy a customer. Period.

If you had a magic wand to design a world where you could build creative confidence in people and help solve their challenges, what would you change?

I’d probably change the school systems. I’m a believer in David Kelley’s premise that in kindergarten everyone is creative and by 6th grade, no one thinks they are. That’s a fundamental flaw in the school system. I think it needs to be changed so we inspire kids to greatness, not beat it out of them. That’s where I would start in terms of building creative confidence.


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