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The Book that Harvard Suggested New CEOs Read is Emerging as a Key Reference to All Innovation Teams

By Rowan Philp

Change. Disruption. Agility.

Marketing conferences and business media are so dominated by calls for radical new approaches in the digital and data analytics age that there is a temptation to believe that all innovation strategies must also be new.

But hang on.

Marketing thought leader Ronald Brown is rapidly capturing the attention of leading executives, academics and marketers by reminding them that core principles and strategies for effective innovation – otherwise gathering dust in library archives – are truly timeless, and need to be understood and embraced in terms of current market challenges.

In May 2016, Brown’s book – “Anticipate. The Architecture of Small Team Innovation and Product Success” – was selected as a must-read for aspiring CEOs in an article in the Harvard Business Review.

While innovation strategy has gained widespread momentum amongst marketers, enterprises around the world are recognizing the need for creating a system of creative thinking for their 'left-brained' engineers and technical workers. In an age where products are increasingly technology-laden, and the CTO/CIO is becoming an increasingly significant actor within the C-Suite, Brown's book has emerged as a critical reference and training tool for the technical contributors to innovation and strategy.

At its heart, Anticipate provides the “time-tested” innovation recipe. That is to say, businesses must accept that innovation and product development must move beyond the market and consumers' current expectations. Brown points to the competitive significance of Henry Ford’s famous statement: that – if their product development team had been led by customers’ expressed desires – they would have had to build 'faster horses'.

With a background in marketing, advertising and leadership of tech startups, Brown – who is also a program development leader at the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) Council – is an expert at the nexus of creative thinking and new product development.

The principles Brown has assembled from real-world success resonate particularly well with readers because their fruits are easily attainable. He told BPI: “Really good marketing and innovation is not that hard if you build on the knowledge that’s already out there, and harness creativity among technical staff. Additionally, if you take the time to learn the principles, understanding and even anticipating customer needs becomes very attainable.”

An innovation thought leader with a storied background in marketing, Brown has compiled a practical, diverse, and uncomplicated ten-step process to unlock the purpose-driven creative potential of technical teams.

He says: “What happens in the ‘Valley', for instance, is that products get developed by engineers, who are left-brained critical thinkers. But since innovations are highly dependent on creativity, getting critical thinkers to think creatively, using time-tested processes, is challenging, but incredibly important. A lot of companies forget that. Meanwhile, technical people are increasingly interacting with customers -  whether its showing them prototypes and features, or reading their comments. This book is about helping companies understand and adhere to the essential established principles for innovation, which they may have overlooked.”

Brown suggests that the failure of many otherwise impressive products like Google Glass might be traced to the imbalance of domain expertise over broad experience in their technical teams, and to a lack of attention paid to time-tested models of customer investigation.

The initial steps outlined in the book include a discussion about the power of the Creative Brief, an input document that’s been around since the 1950s and still used today by marketing and advertising organizations around the world, and the importance of understanding Consumer Biases – a crucial framework tool for anticipating consumer needs that, he says, is surprisingly easy to master “and does not require a bunch of psychology and sociology books.”

His third step – dubbed “Mindreading” – summons proven techniques for understanding customer needs that have been widely forgotten, including an approach that focuses not on asking potential customer’s their opinions, but on the experience of practical problems with similar products.

“The question is: how do experts and marketing people find big problems to solve? When I worked at BBDO, I found out they had pioneered a technique called the Problem Detection Study. Before, traditional research – like focus groups – might put prototypes on the table, and then ask customers what they liked about the prototypes and how they might improve them. BBDO put the product aside and asked about problems in terms of real-life scenarios.

“Say you are making a flashlight. Traditionally, focus groups would ask what would make for a better flashlight, and you’d get answers like ‘a bright light’ or ‘durable case’. But those are features manufacturers thought of long ago, and might already advertise. Focus group attendees often play back what they hear in advertising. The Problem Detection Study gets at the problems people have had with their flashlights, without talking about how to make the improvements. Somebody might say they were stuck in the snow and couldn’t find their flashlight in their car when they needed it most. Then, BBDO would turn the problem, via a creative brief, over to its creative team. The creative team might suggest that a flashlight be developed so that it could be attached to the underside of the dash, or was bright orange, or signaled its whereabouts in some way. The research team focused on identifying problems, and then the intensity and frequency of the problems, and then they would stop and let their creative team come up with answers. The premise of this approach is highly relevant today – don’t ask customers to design the product for you; this goes back to what Henry Ford was saying.”

But central to the time-tested principles Brown has found is step 6 – “creativity” – which must play a major role in preparing technical teams to think properly about innovation.

Anticipate taps into a classical truism, in terms of the importance of precedent in fast-changing times. Everyone knows that weapons technologies have changed beyond recognition in recent centuries, and even years. But everyone also knows, intuitively, that it would be folly for a top military commander today to ignore the ancient works of Sun Tzu, or Von Clausewitz, which map out timeless principles of effective war.

Yet Brown has noticed that – too often – executives and marketers today are simply unaware of the rich trove of relevant knowledge on new product development and customer research that have been produced by domain professionals and academics over the last fifty years.

One central reason for this is simply that much of this bounty is unavailable via the Internet. He writes: “Starting in the middle of the last century, an untold number of practitioners, researchers and academics have steadily compiled an extraordinary amount of insight and understanding about new product development and what it takes to be successful.

This expert and time-tested knowledge comes from a wide range of disciplines, including communications, sociology and even neuroscience. (But) it can be difficult to get to: it is widely dispersed and fragmented, with much of it in repositories that are nearly impossible to access using the Internet. And for developers in this day and age, that means it doesn’t exist. This book was written to address this accessibility problem.”

Rather than using another business theory, Brown presents steps that are grounded in principles behind actual market successes, which he has painstakingly researched and presented in a direct and easy-to-follow way.

Brown’s research shows that many top companies are on the right innovation track – particularly, in harnessing small teams at the customer-facing edges of the organization. However, he says: “New product development is still a risky endeavor, and companies make it more so by not understanding the labors and insights of the past.“ 

“There is now a conscious effort by leading companies to foster creativity among technical people, and to focus on small teams that tend to operate in an agile mode. The thinking behind “agile” is:  let's take a small group of people, let them develop things incrementally, test as we go, and course-correct with customer input. It is a very fluid type of development, but the teams are small so they can communicate well, and the steps are small so you don’t get too far off track.”

The good news is that – by understanding and using time-tested techniques – engineers and other critical thinkers can successfully and readily learn creative thinking, according to Brown. “The most productive problem solvers are those who use both thinking styles, creative and critical, interchangeably; achieving what is called 'whole brain' thinking.”

Looking at thinkers from Albert Einstein to Steve Jobs, Brown says that the ability to 'connect the dots' is at the heart of innovation – and that this requires both deep knowhow, called 'domain experience', and knowledge of the customer’s general world, which he simply calls 'broad experience'.

Brown writes: “In the technology industry, we are so dependent on deep domain expertise that we’ve allowed ourselves to lose much of our appreciation for broad and diversified experience. In fact, in high tech, there is actually a conflict between the two. Engineering experience is at its highest value when the engineer is right out of school. Pursuing these newly minted experts, by definition, means pursuing people with less life experience.”

Brown also describes the outcome of some brainstorming meetings he’s seen: a group meets for hours, and “new” ideas are identified, and then written on large pieces of paper that are taped to the meeting room walls. Satisfied, the group adjourns, but before they do someone volunteers to put everything into an email, as a way to archive the output. The email is sent to the group and their supervisors, and those emails arrive but then just lie in inboxes. In a few months, the archive of ideas is buried under hundreds if not thousands of new emails. People change jobs, new people come in, and new brainstorming sessions are conducted, lasting hours, which lead to the discovery of the same exact ideas.  

The San Francisco-based marketer does not claim to be a theorist. Instead, Brown’s central gift as a thought leader is that he notices successes and failures – large and small, across functions – and their correlation with creative and critical thinking. And his habit is to records them all.

For instance, Brown outlines the extraordinary customer focus – and immersion techniques – employed by the leaders of Sony in the 50s and 60s, which vaulted the electronics company to market dominance.  Brown told BPI: “Sony became this wildly successful company because they adhered to many of the principles I subsequently describe in the book – the management team was incredibly focused on immersion: they would go out and sit with customers for hours. Immersion is also the technique that Procter & Gamble has used decades later to stunning success.”

Brown also learned some of the core principles he espouses in his book directly. “Working in some great ad agencies in the 90s, I interacted with very talented art directors and writers and absorbed a lot about how to optimize the creative process. Ad agencies are experts in commercializing creativity, putting a framework around it, and making it replicable and predictable. Their important first step is the Creative Brief – that’s how you start the process of innovation. But if it is not used properly, it is easy to get into trouble down the line. Some briefs have hard research in them, and some are very qualitative, but they always need to describe what customers are looking for beyond what they might be telling you they want. You have to be sure you understand what the real, underlying problems are, as well as how important they are.

“Your job as a marketer is to know your customers so well that you can anticipate what they’re looking for – hence the title of the book.”

Like an evolutionary biologist tracing the similar paths taken by different species to survive, Brown has identified the business forks that intersect with customer desires, a few steps down the chain. As species from opposite ends of the evolutionary tree, a dolphin and a shark are as wildly different from each other as a successful app store is from a profitable retailer, yet their strategies have much in common, and are rooted in a deeply established framework.

When asked what was the newest thing being rediscovered, he said the value of story-telling – beyond standard descriptive content – is rapidly emerging as recognized “must-have” innovation step for marketers.

“For the longest time, there was a general lack of appreciation for building a good story. Donovan Neale-May, CEO of GlobalFluency, is one of the business leaders who have illustrated the central value of the content marketing approach in creating an understanding of a product that is memorable, and which people can relate to.  Customers see things in terms of their own lives, their own problems, their own aspirations – you learn to appreciate these things with tools like immersion. Then you learn how to tell your story in their context. Certain products have a cult following – it is true of Apple products; it is true of Harley Davidson; those companies have transcended the features and even benefits of their products.  Lots of marketers stop with benefits – but if you can put those benefits in the context of somebody’s life, and if you tell a bigger story, and allow customers to discover for themselves how it can fit into their lives, you’re reached a kind of marketing nirvana. At times in the past, customers forgave companies like Harley Davidson for product mistakes, and stayed with them because the related so strongly to the brand story.”

Brown says the demand among Millennials for positive social impact behind the products they choose has placed a new importance on story-telling, particularly relating to CEOs. “CEOs are becoming more branded, across industries, and are increasingly the face of their companies – they are now a strategic piece of the company story. Look at how Tim Cook has been so outspoken at Apple on key issues – that’s a strategic process. A very high percentage of Millennials want to buy from companies that can demonstrate a direct positive social impact. Lots of CEOs are becoming vocal about issues related to CSR, not just writing a check.”

He told BPI that leading companies today have developed several innovation approaches that dramatically improve on some procedures from the 80s or 90s – including the greater emphasis on innovation itself. “It's easier to do incremental development today because it’s mostly about software, in the 80s it was mostly about hardware; and that allows for a different development process. Its not that companies didn’t want to build new things. Its just that, today, there is much more in-depth dialogue about innovation. The problem in that process is that a lot of things that might seem new are really not. They are often versions of some old principle, and you’d be well advised to understand the underlying principles. Or there are new things that really don’t work; things that have been tried before and have failed, for timeless reasons. It is not that big companies don’t have this knowledge; the problem is that it is often not being applied in real-time, and it is easy in a bureaucratic environment to forget. That is why I tried to build out the most important principles.”

About the Author

Ronald Brown is committed to showing “left-brain thinkers” how to think creatively, a mandatory talent for successful innovation. He started his career at Nestle, and then moved to international ad agencies BBDO and J. Walter Thompson, where he learned the 'science' of commercializing creativity. At JWT, Ron managed the HP computers and printers businesses. As VP of Corporate Marketing at Wyse Technology, he gained global channels, distribution and corporate marketing experience. As president of, he built one of the fastest growing Internet sites at that time. Ron has consulted for clients as large as Philips and as small as founder-only startups. He has filed patent applications related to consumer electronics devices, taught an innovation class at U.C. Berkeley Extension based on his book, and speaks at industry events. Ron can be reached at
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