How Companies Pursue Greatness
An "Innovation Conversation" with James Wynn, Principal, SYPartners
I first came across SYPartners five years ago (when they were still known as Stone Yamashita) on a shared engagement serving one of the world’s great businesses and brands, IBM. I was impressed with them then as I am now. They’re simply a remarkable firm with a pedigree for advising some of America’s largest, most innovative multi-nationals.
I met James Wynn, Strategy Principal at SYPartners, last April at the MBA Innovation Summit organized by the graduate business students at Columbia, Wharton, and Yale. A Chicago native, James began his career in information architecture and design with Dynamic Diagrams in London. Before SYPartners, James gathered an array of design and business experience as Brand Director for Remy Martin and then as the Retail Director of Porsche Design USA. He took his BFA at the Rhode Island School of Design and his MBA at Columbia Business School. His expertise is brand and corporate strategy and development.
Throughout our conversation James referenced innovation as one of the critical paths companies must follow in the pursuit of greatness. He spoke from experience on where answers can come from as some achieve their goals and some do not. And he cited the indispensable role of leaders, executives like Howard Schultz at Starbuck’s, in creating, executing, and maintaining a corporate vision, internally and externally.
We met over coffee in SYP’s offices on West 18th Street in Manhattan. Our discussion began with a departure into definitions that quickly encompassed references to Hollywood and heroin…
Lou Killeffer: James, let’s begin with what you do and how well the word innovation describes it.
James Wynn: I have a lot of trouble with the word—actually that’s not true, it’s a perfectly fine word. What I have trouble with is the way it’s been turned into a meme. It’s as if innovation right now is a sort of stand-in for newness. It’s funny, do you know who Russell Brand is?
LK: Yes, I do.
JW: He was interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air, and they started talking about his drug habit because he’s been in rehab I think several times for heroin.
LK: Several times.
JW: Right, and he said this thing about heroin, which was really memorable. He said that people today have an ongoing desire for newness. We all have a desire for new things; a new car, a new house, a new this or a new that. Brand said the heroin replaces all that with just the desire for one thing and it makes your life much simpler because you just want heroin.
I think a lot of what passes for innovation today is simply a desire for something new. A dissatisfaction with what is – which in and of itself isn’t all bad. It’s often framed as a means for challenging the status quo. But hopefully not just in pursuit of novelty or simply the sale of an incremental widget.
LK: Is there a better word than innovation to describe what you do?
JW: The word we use here is transformation. And the difference is that transformation is much more holistic. It implies a leadership team realizing that something fundamental about how they’re perceiving the world, or perceiving their customers, or organizing themselves, doesn’t work well anymore because things have changed. They need to examine how they work; who they are; how they think; what their core beliefs about the world are and then make changes that support them. That might result in a new product or a new business or something else but it’s not from the perspective of small, incremental steps.
LK: So when you all take on an assignment, you’re clearly addressing a problem at the organization hiring you.
JW: Yes, of course.
LK: If you can generalize, what characterizes these problems? Is it a desire for something new, about managing change, or something else entirely?
JW: Keith Yamashita, who founded our company, often speaks about greatness and there are several dilemmas companies face when thinking about greatness. Maybe you were great once, aren’t any longer, and would like to return to greatness. Or you’re great today but perceive a threat in the future—an existential threat to the enterprise. So you need to get ahead of the curve and reinvent yourself to maintain greatness.
Or you’re a company on the way up and trying to be great. We worked with Facebook, relatively early on, which became a success story. We worked with Groupon early on, and I think they’re a company that’s trying to get there, trying to be great.
LK: Can you give me an example of a company that either wants to maintain their greatness or has the wisdom to know they’re only adequate and wants to be much greater?
JW: Well, among those who want to maintain their greatness, that’s clearly the story of IBM.
We’ve worked with IBM off and on for eighteen years, and in the current chapter—we’re in our fourth year of this particular engagement—that was 100% the brief. IBM came in and said, “We’re doing really well. Our stock’s great, we’ve had ten years of not missing a projection”. But they sat there and said, “If we really look at how the world’s shaping up – if we want to be even greater – we have to really invest in several areas…”, and that’s been the story of our work.
For a company’s that returned to greatness, the archetypical story is Starbucks. We started working with Starbucks shortly after Howard Schultz returned. It was a very clear case of a company that had lost its way and Howard Schultz knew at that point, “This is not the company I created, nor the company I left. A lot’s got to change…” That’s a very clear example of a return to greatness on every level, from the quality of their product and customer experience through to the financial results.
LK: How typical do you believe IBM and Starbucks are as corporations?
JW: They’re atypical; quite unique.
LK: What makes them so unique?
JW: They’re both led by people who are open to the world and have a real curiosity and connection to what they’re doing. Howard Schultz, in particular, is notable. There’s a great story that went around recently. Someone, a barista or store manager, wrote an open letter saying why they love working at Starbucks. I forget the particulars, but the person had either an illness or death in the family and Howard wrote him a letter back. It’s sort of hard to imagine Jack Welch doing that, right? Maybe I’m painting him with the wrong brush…
LK: Maybe but I think you’ve got his management style right…
JW: Right. Howard and a lot of the leaders we work with are really curious, really want their companies to be better and want to understand what it’s like to be a customer or an employee. And they approach the world in a problem solving manner as opposed to coming at it as people who already know all the answers or simply manage from a spreadsheet, let’s say.
LK: It just so happens I’m recording our conversation on a Sony digital recorder ( a great product with which I’m quite pleased ) but Sony’s a company that seems to have lost its way in terms of innovation.
LK: They enjoyed such a commanding lead with the Walkman, what do you suppose happened?
JW: It’s funny you mention Sony because when people apply for a job here we ask them to do a case study and we just created three new ones, one of which is Sony. So I’ve got to be really careful in case somebody is researching us and finds this online, and thinks they’ll get some answers out of it! (Laughter)
For Sony I think it comes down to a cultural problem. In many ways, fifteen years ago, Sony perceived the convergence of content and hardware well before anyone else – certainly before Apple was making any real moves – and it bought Universal or BMG. They bought two movie studios, I think, and two record labels, and owned all this content and had great TVs and great music players and everything but they just couldn’t ever make it work. Could never bring it all together in a way that anybody cared about, As a result, it’s just seen dramatic and shocking decline…
I think it’s because they don’t have the connection to people that they once did. They can’t seem to think about what it’s like to be a customer and why you would actually want this or that, or how to bring content and hardware together in a way that’s beneficial, easy, and great. It could be the legacy of being an engineering driven company or issues stemming from a very traditional way of managing businesses.
LK: In your experience with IBM and Starbuck’s, and your observations on Sony, it seems culture is critical. Do you find these cultural strengths in all your clients?
JW: To varying degrees, yes. Our clients are a self-selecting group. We’re an unusual company. We’re not inexpensive and we can be challenging to work with because, well because we make people face…
JW: Reality, right, and that’s not always comfortable. Some leaders really don’t like that and the few instances where our work hasn’t gone well that’s often the reason why.
Companies that are interested in working with us are already predisposed to cultural curiosity about where they are and where they should be headed. Across our clients, it varies of course, and within individual clients, you clearly have different leaders who feel differently.
LK: As popular as innovation has become, the vast majority of innovation efforts fail.
JW: I can only speak as an outside observer. But from my client work here I think there are two factors.
One, the unrelenting pressure for quarterly earnings simply kills things. We’ve seen it over, and over, and over again. There are very few public companies with the ability to do anything that takes more than six months, or that doesn’t show some kind of immediate result. It’s very, very, very hard.
One of our clients is Ann Inc. They own Ann Taylor and they own LOFT. They’ve got 20,000 employees, 1,000 stores, and a very successful company. The current CEO is Kay Krill and she’s credited with making LOFT a billion dollar business. LOFT is amazing because it’s become a billion dollar brand with hundreds of stores and it started in the late 90s even though it feels like it’s been around forever.
The initial concept simply didn’t work well. They had two years of challenges. Kay was constantly going out and listening to customers and tweaking the formula. Changing the product and tweaking, tweaking, tweaking, tweaking until finally, after over two years, they figured it out. Then they started opening seventy-five new stores a year, year after year, and within less than ten years it’s a billion dollar brand. That’s rare. I can’t think of many public companies that would take losses on an idea long enough to figure out how to make it work.
That’s one reason and the other is an aimless search for novelty that simply doesn’t work. There’s a company I won’t name but it’s a consumer electronics company that’s come up with several products that have done really well, and one that totally bombed, and my guess as to why it bombed was they started to approach the product as if success were a simple formula. Get a fancy designer, make it look good, put it in a nice box, give it a fun name, and put it out there. But it turns out it doesn’t really work, it breaks.
LK: Is that the mistaken conceit that anybody can be Apple, you just need to put a process in place?
JW: Yes, exactly. We ticked all the boxes, got the checklist down, it’s novel, it looks funny.
LK: To be clear, you’re using “novel” in the sense of something superficial, not truly fresh or original?
LK: A moment ago you mentioned the ability to withstand quarterly earnings pressures, do your engagements typically span multi-year timelines?
JW: Not always, but in many cases we do engage with clients for a year or more because what we’re often doing in pursuing transformation requires some large shifts. I’ll give you an example.
We’re working with a big telecom now that wants to become a more human company. It’s the right thing to do and they’re all bought in, and seriously pursuing it. But they have hundreds of thousands of employees serving more than tens of millions of customers. So, this is going to take some time. But at the same time there are things we’re doing that are happening immediately. One of the things that we do for clients is maintain a little bit of critical distance and a little bit of insulation from time pressure. So a lot of what we’re doing with that particular telecom is tackling some of these questions that take a little bit more time and thought to work through.
We’re acknowledging that the people who work there are stuck with earnings pressure and firefighting or whatever. And because of this there are things they simply can’t address – but we can. So we can take on that thoughtful work and engage them in the process.
A lot of our engagements will play out over months or years and have moments where we bring people together. I’m working on an innovation project for a client where we’re interviewing the top thirty people on their technology and product development side, and as we conduct these interviews, we’ll put together ideas about what their point of view should be about innovation.
We’ll bring back the leadership team and say it could be this or it could be that, which one feels more right, and they’ll make a choice and then we’ll go off and play that out and bring something back two months later. In this way we can engage a wide range of leaders in a process that takes a bit longer but that they could never really do on their own because they’re so focused on the day to day needs of their business.
LK: IBM measures itself by quarterly earnings just like everybody else.
LK: But they recognize the need to engage on long-term thinking outside the company because while they know their executives can contribute, so much of what they’re asked to do has to address the short-term?
JW: Yes. They want to get long-term thinking out there and that’s going to make them better at what they do. And at the same time they want to engage because we can connect parts of the organization that don’t get connected very often.
And because we’re generally engaged by somebody at the C-level it takes on a level of importance. I’ve got a client where we quarterly bring together their top 100 people for a daylong meeting. And it’s often agenda-less in the sense that it’s got little or nothing to do with what’s going on with the business at the moment. But we obviously bring very detailed agendas focused on the big questions the company needs to be exploring. That’s a huge commitment that could never happen if it weren’t for CEOs saying this is going to work. There’s just no way a company would free up 300 man days of their top people’s time. No one’s going to do that unless they believe it’s truly important.
LK: When you begin a an assignment, is there a process or a particular approach that SYP employs? How does it unfold; what does it entail?
JW: One of the biggest things we ask for is time commitment from leaders. We ask whoever will be leading the work on their side to be fully engaged. We then lay out a process to get to what the problem is that they’re asking us to solve. And very often, that involves convening groups of people to think about it for a day or so.
So we’ll punctuate a three or six-month time frame with moments when we’ll bring these people together here to explore the problem and we’ll bring some ideas to this stage and then we’ll maybe prototype three solutions, and lay that out. I think one of the things that we do that’s very unique is we often deal with companies’ vague, existential dilemmas. We used to be cool, and people just don’t like us anymore or our financial results are okay, but it’s just not the company that I thought it was.
LK: Then it’s finding the grain of sand in the oyster, the truth of what’s troubling them and how to solve it, that’s what you have to uncover?
JW: Right, and it’s often not clear, and what I think we’re really great at, and I think this is a very rare thing, is being able to imagine a way through.
And that’s what a lot of our proposals are. They’ll start with a conversation where we say, okay, you just have this vague sense of unease, which is probably indicative of real problems on the horizon. We’ll talk about how we would solve that together, how we can create a journey that gets you to your definition of greatness, and that often involves a variety of things.
LK: Who’s the typical client; if there is such a thing?
JW: What will often happen is we will get brought in by somebody at the C-level, a CEO or somebody on the board. That happens fairly frequently. Once you start to work in that sphere, companies are very interconnected at the board level. So that will often happen.
We’ll get board referrals, but who most often sponsors the work, actually are often CMOs, or we can work with HR in some of the larger organizations, if it’s a cultural thing. Or sometimes with a leader of a line of business, although that’s less common. When you get to the big executive level, c-suite type of things, the people at that stage who have the permission, time, curiosity, and access are often in marketing or HR.
LK: What’s essential to solving these kinds of problems? For example, is it market research, sales analytics, deeper customer understanding, new insights on trends? What do you find most meaningful?
JW: Well it’s all of those things. We help companies by taking a very systemic view of the business, and that could be either from the perspective of the customer—what is it like to be a customer of this company? How do you touch all these different parts of the organization? What’s the experience like? Or from the employee perspective. Or from an abstract sort of value chain perspective.
But there aren’t a lot of people who can link all that together. So while we often do some research ourselves, more often than not, we’re coming to one of these companies at a moment when they’ve got more than enough research and they have more than enough data, and they’ve probably worked with several more traditional consulting firms and have all of that output, but the problem is what do you do with it and what’s the decision you actually have to make? What’s the right decision for you? That’s more what we’re doing. We’ll try to absorb all that stuff, and bring it back often in a story. A lot of what we do is writing and bringing that story to life. A view of what’s changing about your customers, this is what’s changed about the business, the opportunity is leading this way, this is what it’s all telling you. And we take it out of the granular and into a higher order conversation.
LK: What then is the role of the client in getting to your deliverable; in driving the process or anywhere along the way?
JW: With traditional consulting firms, you hire them because you want an answer to something, right? Generally, you want an answer to a question. It’s typically a math problem. What’s the most efficient supply chain, or how many factories should I have, or of these three products, which one will do the best in the marketplace. These are problems to solve with math, and most of those consulting firms pride themselves on having the right answer. We’ve run the numbers, and this is the right answer, our track record shows that we often get to the right answer.
At SYPartners we don’t take that view at all. Our view is that probably the people leading the company have the answer. They just haven’t figured out how to get to it, or to align on it. So a lot of our work is teasing that out and giving it shape and imagining how it could really play out, and playing it back to them, and exploring the consequences and the implications, and what you have to change to do it. So we’re more midwifing the solution than just bringing it.
So the role of the client is huge here because they’re doing the work in a sense, or they’re making the decisions – we can’t really do it without them. Our best work is when we have the strongest relationship with the client, and our worst work is when they just sort of aren’t engaged and expect an answer. That’s just not us.
We think a lot about human nature, about how people actually make change happen. The critical component is belief. Think about it. What are leaders more likely to rally around? A plan that they helped create or a binder full of recommendations from a group of consultants they may or may not have actually spoken to?
LK: Do you ever find some of the client community so preconditioned by the answer bias of other consulting firms that they find what you offer either confusing or difficult?
JW: Sometimes, sure. Often at first because it’s like, you want me to do what? There’s a little confusion. It’s one of the reasons we do better when we’re working with more senior people because first of all we’ve got more information, but second of all, I think that you have to get up higher in an organization, and experience that sense that there is no real clear, obvious, right decision. Because all of these decisions have huge ramifications and consequences, and it’s a much more ambiguous environment to be operating in.
LK: What makes a successful practitioner at SYPartners?
JW: It’s a very difficult job, honestly. I think we ask a lot of people and we expect people to have a very unusual mix of skills. Our company was founded by two people, Robert Stone was a creative director at Apple and Keith Yamashita was a product guy. So the founding mythology is this mix of creative thinking and systemic thinking and that’s the company today. We have a strategy side and a creative design side, and all our projects are staffed with people from both. The requirements are a little bit different on each side.
On the creative side, my undergraduate degree is in graphic design, and I went to RISD, which unusually I think, takes the perspective that it’s teaching problem solving and analytical thinking through art, through the artistic medium. If you look up their mission, it’s we’re teaching these things through the practice of art. We’re not teaching art. And that’s very true in the graphic design department, at least it certainly was when I was there, and SYP really believes in that. We bring in designers because they’re critical thinkers and problem solvers, and they express it through visual organization and information, which is hard, and different from what makes a successful designer elsewhere.
Much of our work is not public, much of our work is for a very small audience. Maybe it can’t even be talked about for years. It’s different. If you’re a successful designer, and we want talented and successful people, you’re used to seeing your work everywhere, and having the book you can give away, and things you can point to in the world that you did, right? It’s very hard to do that at SYP. It becomes very abstract and we expect our designers to be very involved in the content. You have to have a designer who wants to read everything, who wants to engage in the ideas and shape them and discuss the way the content is organized and debated. That’s very rare.
On the strategy side, we expect our strategists to be great writers, and when we say great writers, we mean pure, no jargon, well-constructed, thoughtful writing. And at its best, inspirational writing, which is hard to find. Have a knowledge of business and how these things work or have a curiosity about it. Be great with clients, be great facilitators, be great leaders of teams, be able to advise our clients who are often incredibly senior, incredibly successful people. That’s a rare thing to find. Many other companies would split that out into multiple roles, an account person, and then a copywriter, and a planner, or strategist who is just cranking out PowerPoint’s and things like that. We don’t do that. We expect all that to happen with one person, which is really, really hard and rare.
LK: Where do you find these folks?
JW: It’s interesting. Historically people at SYPartners came from writing backgrounds—some business journalists and other creative, analytical writers. Over the years, we had some agency people, but they tended to be outliers, but it was a much smaller company. So you’re talking about a handful of people.
Now we’ve grown a lot. We are increasingly looking for and recruiting from MBA pools, either recent graduates, or within a few years of school. Our ability to do that is a result of the fact that more and more unusual people are going to business school. So fifteen years ago, if you had a creative writing background, or a dance background, or an art background, you weren’t accepted into business school. And you probably weren’t interested in going to business school. And for those who were the goal was investment banking or private equity, or maybe if you went to Kellogg, consumer package goods.
It was a pretty small world. That’s changed dramatically, and you’ve got a lot more people with unusual backgrounds and because of the financial crisis and the changes on Wall Street, and just cultural changes, that sort of investment bank future is less appealing to a much wider set of people. Startups are more interesting, socially minded companies are more interesting, and this whole innovation consulting industry is much more appealing. That’s helped us.
LK: How would you describe the innovation consulting industry’s current health and outlook?
JW: Well, there are a few different types of players.
There are companies like SYPartners that are working to elevate the conversation, to start with the big, fundamental questions that will help a company move successfully into their next phase, and then figure out innovative strategies with that clarity of vision in place.
Then there are traditional product design firms that’ve gotten more and more involved in aspects of the before and after of designing a product, including what’s our product strategy how should it evolve in the market place.
LK: Would IDEO be on that list?
JW: Absolutely. IDEO, Design Continuum.
When I was in design school, I was really interested in those companies and I worked for a company called Fitch, which at the time was hugely successful and a great early precursor. IDEO was certainly around then.
And that sector seems to be really healthy. I like what they do. I need to buy a new mattress and I saw that IDEO worked on one for Sealy, and so that’s the one I’m going to buy. I’m sure it’s going to be better. It will be better than all the other mattresses. They’ll have thought it out better, have made it better, all of these things.
You’ve got to hand it to IDEO. They’ve done a great job of creating this sector, and they’ve created a lot of great products, and managed that dialogue very well. But then IDEO’s gotten so big. Are there really that many interesting projects? I don’t know. How many offices do they have, a dozen or something? Evidently they’re doing quite well.
LK: Anyone else spring to mind?
JW: Fahrenheit is an interesting example because of it’s more private equity-like stance, taking a stake in the business of the idea.
LK: Which is not your model?
JW: No, we’ve never done anything like that.
And then you have the consulting side. So we draw a continuum from the product creation side, the IDEOs, and all those people to the far end of the other side, like Monitor’s innovation practice.
And then some of these other players, like Deloitte has a big innovation consulting wing, and a lot of the IT consulting practices. I think Centra’s got one, Sapient, not Nitro, they have one, and from where I sit, that’s pure business opportunity white space identification type of consulting, and Fahrenheit kind of feels like they’re right in the middle.
LK: What was your first innovation project and what was it like?
JW: When I was an intern, I was working in London, and Fitch, which was the company I was working for, had designed the zip drive, and their model was product design engineering, and packaging, point of sale, and interactive and to a very small degree architecture. Iomega had approached them with real hard science innovation and figured out how to make a denser floppy disk and Fitch had done the engineering for the actual disk. They designed the plastic for the drive, they designed the box that it went in, and they designed the point of sale display.
LK: Where did you grow up?
JW: I grew up in Chicago.
LK: After high school, you went to RISD, did you want to become a graphic designer?
JW: I did want to be a graphic designer, although in retrospect, I regret not studying product design, only because you learn more fun things. At the end of the day, I don’t really design any more. I don’t think I would have had I studied anything else, but graphic design, you learn how to manipulate type and image.
In industrial design, you learn how to make things; how to make things out of metal, and out of wood, and out of plastic, and it engages more parts of your brain. When I left RISD, I moved to London, and I started working for one of the early people from Fitch who had left and started his own company as a designer. I did that for a little while.
Then I was approached by two of my professors who had an information science studio that was very successful early on. They were friends with Richard Saul Wurman and had done some stuff with TED then, and were in the book. So Richard is credited with creating the phrase, “Information Architecture,” and they were in the book, Information Architecture. So I helped them open an office in London, and that got me onto the track of managing design businesses, not just being a designer. From there, I went straight into doing that for a bigger company, and then I moved into a business job at a design-focused company. So I helped re-launch Porsche Design in the U.S., which was their sort of luxury product design. That was a pure business job, and from there I went to a company in the marketing world, and then I went to business school. So it sort of was a transition from literally being a designer to managing a design business, to managing a business with a design focus.
LK: What makes a problem most interesting for you and SYP?
JW: I think for us, it’s one that taps into all of our skills. Something that requires empathy for somebody else, that requires being able to see things in a systemic way, that needs creativity to find a solution, that draws on our unique combination of skills. I’m far less concerned about the individual company, industry, or sector or nature of the problem. How engaged the clients are is obviously really important. So you want to feel like you’re in partnership with someone rather than locked away in a room bringing up a great idea. Some people love that but I think that’s more of a traditional design role.
LK: What do you most enjoy about your work?
JW: We get to tackle very complicated problems, at a very high level. It’s nice to talk to the people who’re leading some of the biggest companies in America, determine what it is they can’t figure out alone, and help them figure it out. That’s a great challenge. I enjoy that.