[00:00:00.490] - Andrew Mason
On today's episode of The Pro Guide, we have the Chief Innovation Officer of Differential, Chris Ames. Today's episode of The Pro Guide is brought to you by Small Pond Productions, the producers of this podcast. If you're looking to boost your brand's voice with professional end to end podcast production, whether it's an interview show or telling stories with audio, we walk you through every step of the process to make you sound great. Find out more at SmallPod Productions. Well, welcome everybody, to this episode of The Burguide. Today we have Chris Ames. He is the Chief Innovation Officer of Differential. Differential is a digital products company that partners with companies in order to develop product strategy design, software development. This man's a good friend of mine. Chris, thank you so much for joining us.
[00:00:50.480] - Chris Ames
Yeah, man, it's good to catch up and to talk to you again.
[00:00:53.140] - Andrew Mason
Absolutely. Man and let's hit the ground running for those of us that don't know, what does a Chief Innovation Officer do?
[00:00:59.700] - Chris Ames
Yeah, it's funny you bring up the title because I remember in the job interview, this kind of came up like, this is the title and everything. And one of the observations I made was anybody who would take on that title, I wouldn't trust to actually be able. Everybody thinks they're good at innovation, but the people who I respect and admire who are really good at innovation, they don't have that job title. So it's almost like a misdirection in a way. So I had a lot of apprehension to which the person interviewing me, my boss David, said, well, the fact that you actually are saying that and acknowledging it might be a little bit of a clue that you could do some of the job, if not all of it. So we wanted to work through.
[00:01:42.060] - Andrew Mason
Yeah. And talk to me a little bit more about what the day to day is for Chief Innovation Officer, because it's still a fresh title for me. Maybe not for a lot of people out there, but to me, I wouldn't be able to clearly articulate what the day to day duties of a Chief Innovation Officer would be.
[00:01:58.860] - Chris Ames
Man great question, and I think it starts obviously with the people actually doing most of the work, which is not me, and using tools and techniques that they developed before I showed up. So I've been here at Differential almost a year, but I still feel like I'm still absorbing learning and really along for the ride to figure out being trained almost in how to do this stuff. Well, obviously I bring enough skills and experience in other realms and a lot of it was very adjacent. But this was my first time as a Chief Innovation Officer, so I can't say that I'm going to come in and, like, here's how it ought to be done. Teach these professionals how to do what they've been doing for many years. What I've observed and learned along the way is that they have some mindsets that not everybody else in the industry has and they also have these tools and techniques like practices and behaviors that other departments and teams and organizations don't exercise on a regular basis. And so that really is our competitive advantage at differential is we just have these handful of really great mindsets that inform the culture of the company.
[00:03:10.080] - Chris Ames
But also we put a lot of those mindsets into practices with tools and techniques that we use over and over and over again, some of which we created in house and as we went. But some of them we were inspired by others in the industry before us. We all stand on the shoulders of giants, as you know. So that's really like where it, I think, originates.
[00:03:31.340] - Andrew Mason
And you mentioned being a year in on this role, so it might be fresh enough for you to reach back and remember when you first get on. Boarded in a company culture. How did you navigate, walk through and kind of pull apart this idea of I have ideas that maybe I could bring about how the company can do things in a new or different way, and yet I'm still really learning what the company culture is, too. And so how do I kind of pull apart what is the company culture that I'm kind of taking on but also what I have to bring to the table and what I should offer to our team as some ways we can change. Can you share a little bit about any victories or anything that you consider like, hey, so far this has been a win in our strategy and it was something that I was able to add to the table.
[00:04:19.160] - Chris Ames
Yeah, one of the things that I've witnessed is I came in with a lot of management experience and the organization to date has really been more flat. It was a group of people of like mind of similar skill sets working very collaboratively together. But as the organization grew that sort of flat hierarchy, which has incredible superpowers and strengths in the beginning, it ends up kind of fraying and pulling and tearing at scale. And so one of the advantages to bringing someone like me in who's worked in larger organizations and more hierarchical, more traditional settings is that I'm able to take some of the best practices from companies at the next level of maturity and start to help integrate them. That's really one of my focuses right now is to do some of that and they already had a great practice of having like one on one conversations. But that's something that I have taken the mantle on almost immediately and just started integrating myself and handling a lot of one on ones and providing some clarity and guidance there.
[00:05:31.690] - Andrew Mason
I really appreciate the difficulty that might have been brought there where when a culture you mentioned it's more fluid, there's a sense in which, hey, we all share a lot of the same values or ideas anyway, so we don't need a lot of discussion. We all kind of have this idea of the way that we do things here. We can go further, faster, without a bunch of roundtables or meetups in order to get something done and to purposely say, no, we're going to slow down even though it feels like we're going slower on purpose. That's difficult. As counterintuitive as that is, talk to me about how you decide when really to take on a new idea, a new initiative. How do you decide whether this is non fatal failure or this is something we really should stay away from and just not risk at all. Talk to me a little bit more about how that process happens where you decide, is this something we want to try for the promise of making our company better?
[00:06:24.320] - Chris Ames
Yeah. So this is something that, again, it's a mindset the organization already has that kind of mitigates some of this risk. So we use the phrase bet a lot, so we make bets, we use the phrase experiments a lot. We make experiments. And so what we want as a company and as part of our culture is to be able to say, hey, we're going to try something new. We're going to integrate this new process or practice or whatever. But we're also going to stop and review along the way which is a concept borrowed from Agile, which is like, have a retrospective, have shorter time blocks around experiments. Iterate as you go, start fast, start strong, iterate as you go, but always leave time to listen and to refactor, rethink. And so for that reason, yes, the stakes are higher when you're a bigger company of rolling out an organization wide change of some sort. But also it's all in the messaging. It's all in the spirit of we're going to try something. And I think what the people in the company need to see and witness from leadership oftentimes is the acknowledgment that it failed.
[00:07:29.800] - Chris Ames
It's like it's not to be swept under the rug. If something doesn't work well and you sweep it under the rug, then you can't learn from it. You've almost robbed yourself of most of the value in a lot of cases. I don't necessarily love the phrase fail fast, fail often. I think that it's different than that. It's one of the phrases that they used at differential long before I got there is continuous improvement. Is our superpower. There's already this mindset that we're just going to keep making things better and you can't make things better if they're great already. So we're always assuming there's room for improvement. Our mission statement is to rapidly unlock value for good people with meaningful ideas. This idea of rapidly unlocking value isn't just an external thing that we do for customers. It's an internal thing as an innovative company that we do for ourselves. It's a gift. It goes back to mindsets and the mindsets and the culture. And there's just strong alignment between the culture that's been defined and expressed and the mindsets of the people that that attracts and draws in and keeps.
[00:08:35.490] - Andrew Mason
I really want to highlight, too, that that is a trait of a healthy company culture. This ability to iterate faster and faster, not be thrown off kilter, this eye of the storm thing where it's just like, we can roll faster, but because we're not off level, that it doesn't just throw us all off course. That's a really great thing. Talk to me about what you're excited about these days. As I wrote this question, I'm like, I know the Hype machine is going to be in full effect over AI because it's what everybody's talking about as something new and emerging and we can talk about this, but also anything else. Fair game. But what's on your mind these days about the future of innovation, where things are headed, anything that you're excited or interested about in this space?
[00:09:17.800] - Chris Ames
Yeah, it's our fault. We're the ones hyping it up. If you're wondering who's doing it's? US. We're definitely a part of the problem. It is absolutely AI, and it's because it's so clearly past this threshold of impact for the broader culture in the world we live in. And I think for many of us who have lived through these kind of micro and macro digital revolutions, technology revolutions, it's almost like, oh, wow, there's a mile post. It's like you get better at seeing the mile post. So there's just a larger group of people out there who have seen enough mile markers of change, say, oh yeah, this is big. Is the height machine in effect? Yes. Is it warranted? I'm in the camp of yes, absolutely. But also I am aware that I could be a little bit biased or informed by how close to the reactor I sit, because at differential, we are very close to the reactor. Are we creating large language model generative AI tech ourselves? No. Have we been leveraging things like predictive technology and AI technology, edge style technology into our products and solutions we build for the enterprise? Yes, we have.
[00:10:34.300] - Chris Ames
And so we've been leveraging AI and incorporating it and been having basically 1ft in both worlds, the AI world, and building digital products for companies that don't leverage AI for many years. And so we're so close to the reactor. Like, it is hard for us not to be excited and understand and even express the gravity of change that we're because we are experiencing it sooner and faster than other industries because of how close we are.
[00:11:03.430] - Andrew Mason
I'd love to switch gears over to this question of you mentioned making bets, this idea of, hey, we don't take risks. We make bets about things and see whether or not they pan out. Even during your short time there, over the last year, has there anything happened where it's like, yeah, we really think this is going to work. And then as we saw it execute or play out, not so much. It actually didn't work for us. Can you tell us about that process, what you learned in the iteration and just anything that shows up for you there?
[00:11:31.780] - Chris Ames
Yeah, so it's hard to say because we're taking smaller bets and nurturing and growing them. So the idea that we're going to put all our chips across the table into one big idea and then cross our fingers and then a year later go, well, that didn't work. That's not how innovation happens. You find like a kernel of something amazing and you try and nurture it into what it needs to be. And as long as the feedback loops are tight, you're growing it in the right direction. It's more like a vine being pruned and fostered. Then it's more like that. You know what I mean? And so are there big, giant, risky things? Sure. Here's when they seem to happen, they seem to happen more when we have an idea that's so great and we try our best to whittle it down to something bite sized, like some minimum viable product. But that threshold is too big of a jump. And so it might be something like this. We do a thing called a design sprint with companies. We'll be hired to come in and walk a company through a six week process because internally they may have a bunch of stakeholders who are rallying around the idea of one person, but they don't necessarily they're not all on the same page.
[00:12:48.140] - Chris Ames
It's like they can each kind of see a side of it. They can see the benefits, maybe some personal benefits for their department or their audience that they're trying to serve. But each stakeholder in the room is trying to get some other value, some very specific, more personalized, immediate need for them value out of whatever this avatar is being pitched. There's the realization that the company needs to innovate. There's enough high level stakeholders that they're like, yeah, if we did made this big change internally and either built this product and released it to market or whatever, we could. This process walks them through a six week deal with a really big workshop day. We get everybody in the room and we spend as much time clarifying the problem as we do defining the solution. And so problem definition is so clear. It's like, what are the goals? Which three year goals does this tie into? Which audiences are going to benefit? Which is the primary audience? If all of them all are not equal, who's the primary audience? And we start to derisk this proof of concept. We get to the end and often there's high interest, high clarity, like more clarity than ever.
[00:14:02.660] - Chris Ames
People are like, I could see this thing working. I can see who it benefits. And even if it doesn't benefit, my people as much, or my audience, or it doesn't necessarily impact my bonus at the end of the year. I'm so bought in for it as a company that we have this alignment. But on the other side of that, once we've whittled it down to its irreducible minimum, there's not necessarily always the funding to make the first step a reality. I still don't see that as a failure because each of those stakeholders walks away sometimes because it just takes time to mature. Like, once the idea sets and matures, the company will come back and build it. But each person still leaves with value. They have empathy for what each of the other departments are going through, what their constraints are. And also they all value innovation and a shared future more than they did before they stepped in the room. And that's vital for companies, especially in a time like now, where AI is the disruptive agent that's just rattling around in organizations. And it's going to be as big as what we've seen it's going to be.
[00:15:12.340] - Chris Ames
We had the era of computer first. It was like back in the right, it was like either you were embracing computers and networks or you weren't. And that was like a micro revolution for the private sector, for industry. And then there was the Internet, which took in another level, and then there was social, and then mobile first. And then it was digital first. And with each of these, by the time you got to Digital Transformation and Digital Disruption, which digital Transformation as a phrase, was invented almost 20 years ago. So the idea that we have to modernize and adapt and go paperless and think these digital cloud based platforms first, these disruptive changes, left companies in the dust. I mean, there are companies that just don't exist anymore because they couldn't move fast enough. And some recovered from the fumble and some didn't. I want to share this really great story. I know I've been talking a while here, but I want to share this story. I'm not going to name the names, but you know the name. I found myself inside a Digital Disruption conversation inside a large restaurant chain that you've had recently, probably Andrew, and they were there was a person there who told a story.
[00:16:26.300] - Chris Ames
They knew somebody who worked inside one of, if not the largest retailer, retail brick and mortar retailer of all time, at the very moment when Amazon was coming to the scene. And so as Amazon was coming onto the scene, this very large retailer, we'll call them Walmart for the sake of the like. And I'm hearing this third hand now, okay, so take this with a grain of salt. It's brain candy at this point, right at the time when Amazon was on the scene and growing and it was becoming apparent that they want to do more than just sell books, honestly, this retailer was losing ground to Amazon. And somebody asked this person, who was kind of inside the machine at the time at Walmart, asked them this question, like, what did you guys do wrong? Because by the time the conversation was happening, amazon had already kind of taken the retail crown. And so someone like, what were the conversations like inside Walmart as Amazon is growing, gaining traction and reaching for the crown to take off know Walmart's head, how did you lose that crown? And the response was, we lost that crown one parking lot at a time.
[00:17:44.020] - Chris Ames
And here's what that meant. At a time when Amazon was making the parking lot irrelevant, walmart had a growth problem on their hands. They were pretty successful. And the thing that was limiting more sales for them was their parking lots were often too small. So this was the place to go on a Friday night. If you're in small town America, right? It's the community watering hole. They needed bigger parking lots. And so they were following that mantra, build bigger parking lots, find a bigger parcel of land, shut down the old blue box and bigger new one a little bit outside the city limits. They'll come. People will come. And they did for a while. But as they were building one parking lot at a time, amazon was inventing AWS. Amazon was basically becoming the interstate highway for all commerce on the internet. And that's the kind of disruptive thinking it didn't happen like overnight. Amazon was doing this micro innovations internally, one project at a time, one department at a time, one growth spurt at a time. I think AI is going to be very similar. There's going to be now, Walmart did recover by the know they're and I think recently I read an article in a business news thing that said that they're actually number one retail again.
[00:19:04.110] - Chris Ames
So I don't know the specifics, but it's a fight, right? But we all know the blockbusters of the world stories that are out there where they just could not change fast enough. And I definitely believe that the AI revolution is upon us and it's going to have the same kind of carnage if we don't watch out.
[00:19:23.730] - Andrew Mason
Chris, what is mind blowing about that discussion is not that they weren't talking about growth. This is what gets me. Both companies were talking about how do we grow and stay relevant? So that it's not even that they weren't asking those questions very often. We put the blame on that. Hey, they aren't asking disruptive questions about growth and therefore they're not growing. But that one of them was just asking the complete wrong set of questions. That blows my mind with the job title like Chief Innovation Officer, which by its very nature means new things all the time, I'm curious, is there anything that you would consider to be a typical day show up for you? Is there any structure, any routine, anything that's repeatable that happens in your space? Because by its very nature, you got to be covering new ground.
[00:20:11.640] - Chris Ames
Absolutely. And I think I mentioned one on ones earlier. I think if there's one thing that I hold sacred on my calendar, it doesn't mean that I don't ever move them. But it's the thing that I move the least and that I hold the most space for. It's the thing that I take time to schedule and plan is just meeting with people. In other organizations, they'd be called skip levels because there's many levels of hierarchy. In ours, it's just one on ones because there's not as much hierarchy. So I think that's important just to have a pulse. The other thing I find myself doing a lot is really keeping pulse on the different zones. In my area, differential has three different divisions. It has a growth division with like sales, marketing, and those types of functions, like the growth function. It has the area that I lead, which is a studio. These are the Design Sprints, the product teams that are like building the actual products for the concepts that have been gone through those Design Sprints. And then for a lot of the stuff we bring to life, we also do the care and feeding ongoing.
[00:21:13.130] - Chris Ames
So my areas of focus are very routinely between Design Sprints studio product teams, teams that are building products for our innovation studio, and then lastly for the stuff that we brought to life, making sure that the care and feeding happens and that they're supported. It's more like think like traditional product support.
[00:21:32.980] - Andrew Mason
Chris for anybody that's listening to this and saying, hey, this actually sounds like what I really want to do, how would you instruct somebody to follow in your same career footsteps? Obviously they can't take the exact same steps. They're living in a different timeline than you, so it's hard to kind of replicate exact steps. But how would you instruct somebody to head in your general direction of a career?
[00:21:54.330] - Chris Ames
What I would say is rather than say, here's the steps you would take, I would first want to ask yourself, are you the right person for the job? Do you have certain itches that just must be scratched? And if you don't have those, probably seek a different profession. Truly. And so one phrase is like strategic thinking. If you find yourself being drawn to any realms of strategic thinking, like you like to play chess or World of Warcraft or I know that I'm dating myself there okay among us. I don't know if you have a strategic side to your brain that you are compelled to exercise quite frequently, you're in the right realm of being well fit for leading product strategy or innovation. The other thing is if you can't help but read and consume a lot of information about how change, effective change, happens. So if you don't find yourself subscribing to podcasts, reading books about innovation specifically, or about just inventions and that sort of thing. You're probably not the right person. If you've never heard the phrase design thinking, look into design thinking because that is an entire discipline, an area that shows you models for how to unlock innovation and get a bunch of people moving in a direction where innovation can actually happen.
[00:23:23.430] - Chris Ames
If you are not a people person, probably not fit for you. If you're not a storyteller, maybe if you don't love great stories and love telling great stories might not be a good fit. And so is there a path? I don't know. But I believe there's kind of like some signals as a person that feel true for me that also help me fit what I'm doing today. So you got to love process, but only enough to like as a means to an end, not as the reason for existing. You got to love people. You got to be insanely curious, honestly, because one of the things that I think is so phenomenal about differential is that they're able to come into a conversation within a context that sometimes they have very little native expertise about. And it's the practices, the mindsets and the processes that help surface the value that already exists in somebody else, in a group of other people, in their culture, in their problem that they've been solving for years and years. And years that they're trying to unlock a new way to be it's, to surface what they already have, pull it out of them, and then put these concepts out that are viable and achievable and still true to them.
[00:24:44.200] - Chris Ames
Not us. We are very truly the guide in those conversations, and we bring our skill set to the table. But without the company and the players and the subject matter experts there, we wouldn't be able to do what we do. And so me as a product strategist or a voice in that conversation doing what I do, I have to be curious. I have to want to know them so deeply that I can know what questions to ask so that their product comes to life, not my desire for them or their company or whatever. If you have a lot of opinions and a lot of value you want to offer other people, you might not even be well fit for this job. But if you want to help them achieve their value, I think you're probably in a good mental space to be in this role.
[00:25:34.430] - Andrew Mason
Well, it's time for what I consider to be the selfish question of the day. I'm just going to own it and acknowledge it. Chris, in my mind, you are a really great systems level thinker. Any assessment I've ever taken, I've shown up deeply sequential. What's the next action? I don't think about the overall context and how the individual parts affect one another. You, in my opinion, are really great at that. Do you have any advice for instructing somebody beginning to move in that direction of thinking about systems behavior, a book, a talk, anything you'd recommend is a great first step.
[00:26:05.510] - Chris Ames
Yes. If I could reach through and just hug you through this podcast right now, I would. I freaking love that question. I have been crushing for years on a guy named Shane Parrish. He doesn't know who you know. I'm like silent observer. There's a blog called Farnham Street. It's actually a newsletter, I think, now. So look up Farnham Street. He has these books for sale, if you want to read. He has a podcast called The Knowledge Project, if you want to listen to the podcast. And he has a newsletter that releases once a week that just really helps you gain some perspective. The books specifically, and I have them here, it's The Great Mental Models, volume one, two, and three, and it'll cover stuff from the great philosophers on up. But it's written in a way for the common person. It's not like, heady and academic. It's like, here's a very simple, practical approach to really developing your second and third order thinking. And so, yeah, a great resource in three different formats, so you have no excuses. Fellow podcast listeners, they take a step. Yeah. Shane Parrish and Farnham Street. Love those guys. Knowledge Project.
[00:27:16.010] - Andrew Mason
Chris, I have loved this conversation. Any way that you would want people to connect with you, hang out with you, swirl around in your orbit, just the floor is yours. However you want to do that.
[00:27:25.900] - Chris Ames
Yeah, if you want to jump on differential.com, we have a great AI newsletter. So if we haven't harassed you enough about AI, it's new, but we're just collecting a bunch of AI related news for business leaders. That's kind of the focus is for businesses. And just like here's, five headlines you may have missed this week that you shouldn't. So, yeah, check that [email protected].
[00:27:47.860] - Andrew Mason
Chris, you are the man. Thank you so much.
[00:27:49.860] - Chris Ames
[00:27:50.910] - Andrew Mason
And our thanks to all of you for listening. If you're looking for a quick way to make our day, a review in itunes or subscribing to this podcast would mean the world to us. Our thanks to Small Pond Productions for sponsoring and this was the Proguide. Learn from leaders, change your life, see everybody.