top of page
  • Lou Killeffer

How to Innovate - and Why

An "Innovation Conversation" with Jun Lee, Partner, ReD Associates

ReD Associates is an innovation and strategy consultancy, with offices in Copenhagen and New York, whose anthropologists, sociologists, economists, journalists and designers apply the study of human behavior to their work. I joined Jun Lee, Partner at ReD NY, in their offices not far from Ground Zero at 26 Broadway, in the old Standard Oil Building, the legendary landmark built by John D. Rockefeller in 1921.

Jun took his bachelor’s degree in Neuroscience & Behavior from Columbia University and his Masters in Design from the Bauhaus inspired IIT Institute of Design. He’s spent his career focused on research and product development, concentrating on consumer electronics. His current fascinations include mobile play, waged-based gaming, social networking, and the evolution of in-home television. Jun’s worked with multi-national clients, like Samsung from Korea to Copenhagen and enjoys a global perspective gained by living on several continents.

ReD’s New York office décor combines Danish Modern with remarkably original and beautifully maintained Beaux-Arts ornamentation. As such, it seems the perfect place to think things through. During our discussion Jun cited technology as the primal force in innovation while describing ReD’s aspiration to innovate, independent of technology, by creating shifts in meaning among consumers and their worldview. He spoke about the critical role of the social sciences in his work, the mysterious nature of the best client problems, and the depth of intellectual rigor required to succeed. Indeed, Jun describes ReD’s pursuit of the best outcomes as painful and believes pain-free thinking simply hasn’t gone far enough in identifying the next big opportunity. Maybe that’s why Jun offered me a glass of wine as our conversation came to a close.

Lou Killeffer: Jun to begin, you were saying that much of what drives current innovation thinking and success comes from the design discipline?

Jun Lee: Yes, I think a lot of it does. I think the design industry has appropriated, at least from an agency point of view, some of the territory. The earliest agencies that did this kind of work, places like eLab and even the Doblin Group, were among the first to talk about innovation as a practice.

eLab was a group of academics and social scientists but because they were Chicago-based they had a lot of interaction with places like the Doblin Group, which combined design as well as anthropology and social science. I think that was the genesis of it and that led into the world of the IDEOs and David Kelley. So there was a lot of design overlap in this area initially; I don’t know if that’s really still the case.

LK: I think perhaps it is, so much so there was an article in yesterday’s (June 7) Wall Street Journal headlined, “Forget B School, D-School is hot: Design Thinking Concept Gains Traction”.

JL: Yes, they’re presenting design thinking now as critical to observational insight, to conceptual thinking and problem solving with regard to innovation.

LK: Well, regardless of its origins, from your perspective, just what is innovation? What is it that you practice?

JL: Well, I can tell you what it is that we want to practice, and how we think about this topic.

LK: Please.

JL: The model that works well in my mind is to think of new technologies as discovery engines. They create new worlds, new landscapes. Giving us the ability to occupy new territory that didn’t exist before. That’s what technology does and that’s clearly a fundamental driver of innovation. Sourced from the world of hard tech and basic design, creating new places for people to live. But these aren’t commercial places yet, right?

LK: Right…

JL: So design and product developers make these new landscapes into nice places for people to live, hang out and do things. From my perspective, that’s kind of improving someone else’s land. It creates a lot of value but it’s about accepting the definition of what the place is and making the changes that make it really wonderful for the average person. So what’s the primary innovation factor? Is it the technology that created this new place or is it the design and product development and all the due diligence that goes into making it a nice place?

LK: What I hear you saying is it’s a combination of the two; that neither independently is innovation alone.

JL: Well, no, I would argue with that. I see the role of technology in the model as the real innovation and that making it a nice place is the additional work that people like us do. In the same way that we’ve seen broad jumps in the history of science; it’s the great man theory, right? You have the new thinker that establishes something or redefines something and then you have millions of additional issues and add on thoughts for thirty years following up on that one shift.

LK: Yes, of course.

JL: So technology is one way of creating these new areas, these new worlds, but the aspiration we have at ReD is that you can do this not just through technology, you can do it by changing people’s minds.

It’s the classic idea that we all live in a certain ideology. We all accept certain things. We’ve all come to accept the world as it is. And so, even without technology, if you can redefine something, if you can shift the meaning of something from one understanding to another, that also creates new worlds and you haven’t done a single thing in an R&D lab.

Creating these shifts in meaning is what we do. It’s certainly what we want to do.

LK: Are there companies that share your aspirations; companies that have succeeded in creating such shifts in meaning?

JL: Absolutely. Classic examples are things like Nintendo and their Wii gaming system. Here a group of people decided that gaming is for everyone, it’s not just for your little brother in the basement, it’s for the whole family.

There are many examples of redefining what something is and then creating a whole new acceptance of that idea as a kind of opportunistic and optimistic view of things.

Take Web 2.0 for example. In the world of software, Microsoft applications, they talked about feature bloat and things that were extremely expensive, like $600 packages of Microsoft Office and Word, and being able to home publish. These are all aspects of a vision around the idea that as programming and functionality advance, a regular person can become an expert, in publishing, or in spreadsheet development or what have you. So the ideology is that because we’re professionals we need to develop the skills of a publisher for writing, for example.

Then all of the sudden, there were a few small developers that decided maybe you just need to be able to type some words and save the documents. Maybe financial software shouldn’t be about becoming a tax auditor, but rather give you beautiful graphs of where you spend your money, right?

So this whole shift, in the smaller Web 2.0 type companies, what they’re saying is our view is a light touch approach to software and computing. It’s the shift from thinking you need heavy weight tools, industrial size software because you work in the professional world. It’s a shift from that thinking to a simple, how can we be helpful?

LK: So it’s no longer about the democratization of expertise but rather responding to how people live and helping them go from where they are to where they’d rather be?

JL: Right.

LK: And perhaps people might not even know that they would prefer this new view or opportunity, Wii being an excellent example.

JL: Yes. And another example might be moving from Microsoft Exchange and your entire secure email server to this weird email thing on the web called Gmail, but by the way, it’s got unlimited, infinite storage.

These are all statements that a company makes about their new “ideology” about how something should work. And having that point of view, for me, is the first statement of real innovation. To say you have a different belief system now because you have a different way of seeing the world.

And to help everyone else to see, that’s where the social sciences come in, that’s where observing people and their behavior comes in.

I’m looking at people in certain situations, whether it’s how they watch TV at home or how they use their phone, and I ask myself the question, “Are these people stuck in the wrong ideology?” are they stuck in the wrong definition of what it is that they could be doing? For us, that’s the starting point of every project.

LK: Do most companies approach innovation in this way; pursuing fundamental changes in the meaning and utility consumers bring to their products?

JL: When you look at companies you can see that some have strong conceptual thinking and others don’t. And of course you can be a very successful money making machine without doing anything conceptually interesting. You can also be conceptually interesting and not make very much money.

Some companies do both. But the really beautiful ones are the ones that are able to think differently conceptually and then execute on it. I think right now the most interesting and exciting company in the tech world is Microsoft.

LK: That may surprise some of our members; why Microsoft?

JL: They realize that their old model, the idea of being blue is not going to keep going forever. That they need to find new places to create value other than being extremely technical and stable; good for the IT network administrator and good for security and big business.

And they’ve learned their lesson and realize that their intake on global smart-phones was from the perspective of a business phone. Now they know realize that phones are personal, very personal sort of non-business propositions.

LK: An extension of my personality?

JL: Exactly.

LK: Are you working with Microsoft?

JL: No.

LK: They could use someone like you…

JL: Thanks, but no we’re not working with them. (Smile)

But you can see things that they’re doing that are different. Their mobile OS Windows phone, they’re approaching it in the right sort of way, which is they’re taking it slowly and they’re building it from the ground up. Clearly they’re making decisions rather than just trying to do everything. You see this method in their phone and you also see it in their more recent vision for the Xbox and TV.

LK: What’s their vision for the Xbox?

JL: The Xbox is an incredibly powerful platform.

One that looks like it’s going to be in a really strong position to help reinvent TV. So I like Microsoft right now because they’re establishing a clear point-of-view before they execute; they’re making smart choices to do certain things and not do everything; and they’re wisely looking at in-home entertainment and TV as the next big growth area.

Today, when I think of Microsoft, I don’t just think of the software but rather a software, search, and explore company. They’re building whole new platforms.

LK: So acknowledging innovation requires both conceptual and commercial thinking, and as you say, the “beautiful companies” do both, still with all the time, money and effort why does so much innovation fail? Why do 80% of new products fail in market?

JL: I think it’s fear of failure.

When you think about it, when you have a perspective shift, it means you have a new point-of-view. And that new point-of-view means that you have a new ideology or a new vision of how things ought to be.

Which by its very nature must exclude things, and that’s very difficult to do within a big company; to actually make that change. It can only be done at a very senior level and you risk your job by doing it.

Consider Microsoft. I don’t know very much about Microsoft or their internal situation but I sense that there are now a group of people there that may be very different than the old Microsoft but they’re moving in sync with the enterprise, they’re moving together. So someone has given them the authority to start making changes and I don’t know who that is, but someone’s taking a bet on change. So they’re moving in a new direction and it feels like they’re moving as a team.

You have other places where it’s all top down. At Apple the product wasn’t right until Steve said so. That’s another approach. And Jobs wasn’t, I mean, he wasn’t so much risking his job as he was risking his company on every project and that’s just the way he did it.

But in companies that are older or slower or not as consistently successful in terms of innovation, it may be because the senior people aren’t willing to make those bets and then the middle managers can’t bring enough people into that vision to see and embrace change.

LK: So how do you advise a company that wants to be better at setting their vision and succeeding at innovation? And given how we met, what would you tell the business schools creating their curriculum; what do their students need to know to succeed at innovation?

JL: Those are very good questions. (Smile)

Obviously this has a lot to do with culture and people, but that’s not always the answer.

If you believe that being interested in the concept of what you do is as important as executing on what you do, then you end up with a different mix of people in your organization. People who themselves are interested in looking at and seeing the broader sense of things, not just their business area alone.

I think that’s a great starting point because then you can actually have these kinds of conversations and your people get it. I mean, the first barrier is when you’re trying to have conversations on a conceptual level and people are completely impatient with the topic because they have sales to close, products to ship, and things to do. All of which are obviously essential but they don’t look or see any further; they look at you like, “What are you wasting my time for?” So as a starting point, that’s a big barrier.

LK: I’m too busy with the pressing present, I can’t waste time talking about the future?

JL: Yes. And then the big problem becomes, “Ok, you guys keep going ahead with your day-to-day business and we’ll take a corporate innovation group and do all this conceptual thinking and then relate it back to you.” That’s also, organizationally, very difficult and hard to do as well.

So there’s got to be a balance. And I think the strong leadership in companies that establish themselves as learning organizations are in a better position because they value growth as an enterprise. They’re willing to make the appropriate changes about who they are and what they do. This becomes acculturated so that the organization is primed and when you want it to address change they understand why it’s happening.

LK: What is ReD Associates’ approach to innovation? What’s foundational about how you address it?

JL: From our perspective, if a company is interested in hiring us, what they’re looking for is a more strategic point-of-view, much deeper than any classic market research. Our research is of a different quality because of what we’re willing to do. I really don’t know of any company that suffers so much in addressing the thing they’re studying or trying to understand.

I’ve seen reports from other firms that are extremely logical and clear and they’re all well done but you get the sense that the person who put it together didn’t suffer much, because they didn’t dig deep, you know? And for us, there’s always an extreme level of pain that goes into thinking about these things in a hundred different ways.

While we believe that people are the source of defining new meaning and coming up with different perspectives, we also always ask ourselves, “Ok, we can do that but how does that view connect to the company? How can they achieve the things that make up this vision?”

LK: Yes, of course.

JL: That’s the strategic aspect of what we do.

So at its core, what you get is very deep research but when we’re shining and things are running well, we’re also helping the company realize new opportunities. In that way what we offer is mostly opportunistic. It’s saying, “Here are the new places for you to go and the new things for you to look at, or the things that you’re missing in your existing business.”

So when companies come to us they want some deep understanding on something. And it always feels like they’ve already done tons of research but so often, even companies with extensive market research budgets, they collect all this material and they haven’t learned much more than when they started.

LK: Lots of data, limited useful information, and no knowledge?

JL: Right. Much less any understanding of what to do next as a result.

And the reason why it’s such a painful activity for us is because we work with the same clients over, and over, and over again. And the questions are typically centered on essentially one topic area. So imagine studying it twice a year for six years in a row. After awhile you realize you’re getting to a point where certain findings and learnings are just not good enough because you learned that three years ago. That’s where the digging deep part and the real pain come into the equation.

LK: When you begin a project is there a particular process that you follow?

JL: Yes. Basically we start with the broad question that the company has assigned. They’ll use their own internal language and it’ll be about growing or broadening a certain segment of their market. It might be around women in certain sectors and how to grow that business. The first thing we do is determine, “What’s really the question they’re asking? What’s the phenomenon that they want to understand?” In the case of say spirits and drinking and women, it might be around conviviality or home entertainment. So we outline the broad social question first that contains the people and behavior that they’re interested in.

LK: That contains the consumer’s current definition of the world.

JL: Exactly. It’s really about understanding the area broadly and from our point of view, we don’t go out into the world and ask, “What are your unmet needs?”. We’re more interested in understanding what’s home life like these days or what’s the state of cooking and eating.

Typically before the project even begins, before we even get the project, we have a broad discussion about why this topic could be interesting to us and if we were to do it what are the kinds of questions that we’d be asking. We start every engagement with a back and forth dialogue from which we create what we call a “discussion document” that lays out all the big topics and questions. That’s the blueprint for the key topics and research objectives for the project. So the process starts with two weeks of wracking your head about how to understand the topic and then designing the methodology to setup the questions and the situations.

LK: Do you all use traditional research methods, alternative methods, custom methods?

JL: We’re very agnostic and simple in our methodology. We do a lot of ethnographies, which use understanding an individual as an entry point for understanding the rest of their world.

So, for example, we will look at the mailroom guy to understand a lot of the issues around distribution and the movement of packages. With children’s products we’ll spend time with kids as well as the mom or dad who buys that product.

But then through that person we’ll understand a lot about their family; about where they go to get informed; about what happens when they go shopping; about situations when they’re together, or alone, or with friends. So they become an entry point to understanding the larger question or the opportunity.

LK: What ‘s the role of the client in a typical engagement? Are they waiting in the wings?

JL: No, they get very involved. It depends on who they are but sometimes they’ll get involved in the overall framing, sometimes they go into the field with us, it really depends on their interest level and how much they want to be a part of it.

LK: Are most of your assignments global in nature or domestic U.S.?

JL: Mostly global. Right now our New York office has a team in Nigeria, another team in Shanghai, and another in the U.K., so we’re pretty much everywhere.

LK: What are they investigating?

JL: The ones in East China are looking into women and how they socialize and…

LK: Conviviality?

JL: Yes, conviviality. (Smile)

The U.K. study is about bartender culture. And Nigeria is about mobility and the growth and roles that the mobile phone is playing.

LK: Exciting. Is there a typical ReD client? Is there something that’s common about the companies that come to you?

JL: Yes, there is actually. We work well with older, well-established companies; companies that have very fixed ideas about what it is that their business is. They need the most help in a way. They’re the ones that recognize the benefits of scale and stability and efficiency, and also realize that they lack flexibility and new thinking and whatnot.

So our clients would not be places like Facebook or Google. Those newer companies are clearly based on someone’s point-of-view of the world and they’re now executing and living out that vision. But what is HP’s vision of the world? I have no idea. You know?

LK: I’m afraid the HP board may be wrestling with that as well…But as a client base, the self-aware corporation, that one that knows what they know and what they don’t know, sounds pretty powerful.

JL: Right, and I don’t think they see it as a shortcoming. It’s just the fact that they’re structurally not designed to do this. We just try to help companies refresh their vision or refresh their view of their markets and people.

LK: How would you describe a typical ReD associate, one of your team members? What are they like?

JL: We have a very broad base of people here, half of whom have side projects that I find out about. One guy is making a new soccer magazine for the U.S. market. He used to be a magazine editor and is a soccer fan and so he decided to put together a soccer magazine with some of the best sportswriters and magazine designers We have another fellow here who spent last summer in Poland where he was investigating a German experiment from the 1850’s to try to rehybridize a breed of cow, to produce oxen. He spent a year doing research on the genetic breeding of this original ox. He recently wrote an article for a critical theory magazine about what it all means. The people we have here have deep curiosities about different things. They’re somewhat unique.

LK: Jun, what’s your background? What were you doing before you joined ReD and how did you decide that innovation is what you want to do?

JL: I think like everyone else I just sort of stumbled into it.

I have a design background and I studied neurobiology and psychology as an undergrad so I’ve been all over the place. The design school I attended was the Institute of Design in Chicago and it’s not a classic design school. It’s one of those places that train people that go into the world of innovation on the agency side and work at IDEO, at Frog, at Smart Design. They produce a lot of good people in part because they bring people in from very different backgrounds, not just classic design backgrounds. They have the basic framework right, which is that this kind of work requires a multidisciplinary approach. It requires both research and understanding, and conceptual thinking, which is the design aspect of reinterpreting what you learned and then having some business savvy. After the Institute I ended up working internally at a big tech company, working in their advanced product development.

LK: Which company?

JL: Samsung.

LK: What was that like?

JL: It’s a very big place and I was a very small fish.

It was also my first time in Korea and so for me it was a very personal learning experience in terms of learning Korean and working in a big company. And I felt shielded. I didn’t have to go through the whole system that one goes through as a new employee. It’s a very challenging, long road. You have to be completely committed to building a life within the company and so what you do is as important as how you connect with others. I got to avoid the part that required me to make real roots because I was just a consultant, an outsider. So I was able enjoy the work without having to deal with the organizational stuff that you find in every corporation. That was quite nice for me because that’s a very stressful part of any work life.

Then in 2005 Red was hired to do a project at Samsung and I met one of the principals here and we learned we liked talking about ideas more than the details of things we were doing in the office. Then they invited me to visit Copenhagen. I happened to go on the nicest day of the year, the first day of spring. Spring came early that year and it was beautiful and they sold me on going there. Then when I showed up in October it was just rain and black, gloomy and horrible but that’s how I ended up in Denmark. (Smile)

But as I’ve moved through this with the people that I’m surrounded by, realizing the idea of ReD and the basic vision that’s been laid out, it’s a very fulfilling way to spend my time.

LK: Was the work you did at Samsung in the innovation realm as well?

JL: Yes, we were doing research into new product opportunities; next generation product thinking.

LK: What was your first innovation project?

JL: I did a project at Samsung. They made cameras as well as other products and though they sell some in the U.S. most are marketed in Asia. So we did a project about their digital cameras and the first thing I learned is that the shift you explore can be quite small in perspective.

At that time digital camera makers pursued an aesthetic and perspective that digital cameras lived in the realm of technology, not in the realm of filmmaking and traditional cameras. I worked with a very good designer who decided that we were going to look into how to create an aesthetic around digital cameras that felt very mechanical. We designed the camera not simply in terms of price but in terms of the actual build and aesthetic.

Looking at the market today there’s been a huge shift in the idea that digital doesn’t just mean light, plastic, and cheap. It can mean a lot more. It’s conceptually interesting that digital by nature is very fluid and that’s why some tech companies have a hard time making their products feel solid, feel like furniture. Furniture is the most solid, long-lasting aesthetic choice that you have in your home. Trying to make tech and digital things have that kind of weight and permanence may not be easy. But that change in thinking was important because if you don’t make that change and things just kept going the way they were headed go, you could end up primarily conveying lightweight and disposable.

LK: To your opening point about creating a place where people want to be, is there a project that you’re most proud of?

JL: I don’t think of things that way I guess. I’m proud that we do analysis and we come up with a new understanding of something and it turns out that it’s right two years down the road. Right now we’ve done enough work in the tech area, the things that we talked about three to five years ago are happening right now and that’s very satisfying confirmation that the thinking works, that the approach works. So that’s very satisfying.

LK: You mentioned in passing that many of your clients keep coming back which must

be satisfying as well.

JL: Yes, it is. It’s like, I don’t know the right analogy, but in a good way it’s kind of like corporate therapy, right? It’s having a good partner to build an understanding of the area that you’re in over time so that it’s not just one project on this one product but over time, as a company, you have a good partner or advisor that can help you move the conversation along internally. And here are the new shifts and these are the things that are coming up and these are the things that we need to start caring about and we’ve moved from thinking that this is the right area to this other is the right area. That whole conversation is an ongoing one and for some of our clients, it’s not that they come back, it’s that they never leave. We’re always having that conversation and like a good therapist, you need that external input to develop and grow and if that person is gone then you kind of go back to your old ways, which could just become spinning around the same topic for a long time.

LK: So is a good client someone who, using your therapist analogy, recognizes they

need help and recognizes that this is an ongoing process, not just addressing one discreet problem?

JL: Exactly. The best clients are constantly questioning themselves and what they’re doing and they want to make sure that they have thoroughly looked into every area they’re in and whether they have the right point-of-view about different areas. In our case, the world of technology is a very rich one because there are so many interfaces between people and technology, so many different devices, so many different applications and each of these require their own perspective and there must be an overall perspective as well. And then making all the product changes so quickly that these things are constantly in flux…

LK: If that’s a great client, what makes a great problem? What gets you excited in terms of a problem?

JL: We say good problems feel like a mystery novel. Where you have conflicting information or the conclusion constantly comes out one way when you were sure it should be something else. Those are the best problems, particularly if there’s a social component to them. So say we did a project on smart phones, the question is, is that idea of a smart phone relevant for people who live in cities in Europe and before you go into such a city you don’t know the answer. Maybe it’s still relevant because these things are great and everyone should have one but then you go in and try to understand how the people think about access to the internet, and their need for information, and how far they travel from home in a typical week and so on. And then you realize, this is not the answer for these people. So you may start off with questions you’re convinced have a logical predetermined answer but you don’t really know and you’re ready to be surprised. I think that those are great problems.

LK: Most of what you describe sounds as if it involves a lot of observation and insight based on current behavior in the real world. Where else do you and your teams look for ideas and inspiration?

JL: I think reading is a big source of inspiration for everyone. It doesn’t have to be reading books, just exploring in some pretty huge areas. On every project we have basically an open book account and we encourage every project team to build a small collection of books from the world of social sciences becomes the reading list for every project.

I don’t have a social science background but our basic belief is that ethnography without anthropology or the theories of anthropology is nothing. It’s just hanging out, right? If you just give a camera to a designer who has no way of framing what they see in the world or no interest in contemporary or classic theories of social science then they’re just going out and seeing people. Anyone can do that. So one of the big challenges we ask on every project is, “What’s the one core theory that you can introduce into the understanding?”

We go into the field for extended two and three-week periods for ethnographic interviews and research and then the teams return and get locked up in a room and the pain begins. Going through all the data trying to figure out everything that you can imagine and applying appropriate theories that help explain what is happening and help drive our thinking.

LK: Jun, as you’re obviously wise about the application of the social sciences and the implications of social change, are you or is ReD interested in or actively engaged in social innovation? Do you look at those kinds of projects?

JL: We’ve done a lot of that kind of work in our Copenhagen office and also a bit here. It’s not my area but our colleagues in Copenhagen have worked, for example, with the Danish Health Ministry and we have a deep interest in lots of different issues.

While we’ve done a lot of public sector work in Denmark the actual practice of social innovation is not something we do. We work with and help companies that do, but we don’t do it ourselves.

LK: Is there a particular problem or client you’re attracted to, a big challenge you’d really like to solve?

JL: You know, I don’t really need to address grand things to be interested. And while there are enormous problem areas, obviously education is one, the legal system is another, and energy’s another, such institutional level issues are huge and maybe too big for any one place to even try to approach. Granted they may be the juiciest, most difficult and most meaningful, but having said that, I thoroughly enjoy the idea of researching and understanding the every day things in people’s lives.

bottom of page