Butterflies to Hurricanes – How Innovation & Creative Problem Solving Have Changed My Life

The title of this post may seem a little dramatic, but it’s actually true!   I’m hoping that someone out there might be early in their innovation journey and my story might provide some pointers to help them transform their lives.  This blog post outlines my path from innovation neophyte to Intuit Innovation Catalyst.

The Calm Before The Storm

The butterfly began flapping its wings in early 2010 when I started listening to Phil McKinney’s podcast called “Killer Innovations” in which I started learning all about brainstorming, narrowing and how to assess the quality of innovations.  I’m sure this happens to a lot of people, but I thought this was all about generating good ideas during a team brainstorm or personal brainstorming and not a lot more.  It wasn’t Phil’s fault, I just had no experience in the area.

I tried out a few of his techniques personally and soon got the bright idea that I should try this out on my team at Intuit.  I booked a 2 hour meeting with all of the business intelligence developers to brainstorm new ways that we might use our text analytics system to make things better for our area.  The session went pretty well.  We generated quite a few ideas and due to the fact that I had a really bad narrowing system, we took almost 5 hours trying to prioritize the list  of ideas.

What I Learned:

  • The best way to generate killer innovations is to generate lots of ideas
  • You need a fast way to narrow ideas, otherwise the team will burn out
  • Make sure you know what’s going to happen with the ideas after they are generated.  If there is no commitment to move forward with them the team will flounder.


April 28th, 2010:  I decided that I would try something a little bigger.  I got approval from the TurboTax Analytics manager to pull her entire team into an all day brainstorming session.  We spent a few hours brainstorming what we might be able to create if we combined random Intuit data sets.  We were able to generate about 297 different ideas!

After the brainstorming we went through a long and tedious narrowing process.  We put each idea into Quickbase and then gave each one a 1-5 star rating based on how well it met our key criteria.  Eventually we were able to narrow to a key few ideas and we began prototyping them using the whiteboard.   Finally, we voted on the top ideas and wrapped up the session.

At the end of the day, the manager of the team pulled me off to the side and told me about Intuit’s Innovation Catalyst program.  She said it was an intense training where I would be able to learn how to apply Design For Delight in sessions just like I had done.  I was ecstatic as I had no idea the program even existed.  It turned out I was already applying the techniques myself even though I needed a lot more skill and practice.

What I Learned:

  • Don’t worry about whether you’ve got it exactly right.  Jump in, execute and make sure you learn from the situation.
  • Being a solo facilitator with 9 participants is very difficult.
  • Make sure your narrowing criteria are right before facilitating.  Generate a few ideas on your own, run them through the narrowing criteria and make sure it works right.

The Winds Are Strengthening

Around this time I also started listening to Andrew Warner’s podcast called Mixergy.  I was learning a TON about entrepreneurship from him, and one day in the Arby’s drive-through I came across an episode where he opened up and started talking about what it was like for him to be interviewing his heroes.  He gave some pointers on doing this successfully and I realized that  the best way for me to learn more about innovation was to start interviewing!   I went home and bought the  www.innovatorsmix.com domain name, put up a quick WordPress site and tried to find a few people to interview.

June 18th, 2010: The fastest folks to connect with to interview were co-workers at Intuit, so that’s what I did.  I conducted my first 2 interviews and remember being SO excited afterward.  I was learning about things going on inside the company that previously I had no visibility into.  I was hooked immediately, but there was one snag.  The legal team.   They wanted to make sure that I wasn’t letting out trade secrets and asked me to give them a copy of each episode before I published it.  This made the barrier way too high so I decided to stop interviewing Intuit employees.

Finding new folks to interview required a little creativity, but I was learning about Twitter and decided to setup an account for the podcast.  I began connecting with anyone with the word “innovation” in their profiles and attempted to find my next interviewee.  As luck would have it, I found @GreggFraley on the first day (a Friday) and struck up a quick conversation.  After a little bit I got up the guts to ask him about having him on Innovators Mix.  He was extremely kind and offered to let me interview him on the following Monday.  GREAT!

I quickly realized that it would be incredibly rude of me to attempt to interview him without ever reading his novel Jack’s Notebook.   I immediately called my fiancee and asked her to please stop by the bookstore and buy a copy.  She called me back about 30 minutes later and told me that they didn’t have it in stock!   What was I going to do?   I left work early and went home to see if her iPad might have the book.  IT DID!  I immediately dove in and proceeded to read the entire book in about 12 hours or so.

Monday came quickly and I was ready to conduct my first real interview.  Boy was I incredibly nervous, but since he was a pro at this type of thing he was able to take my poorly crafted questions and provide eloquent answers to each of them.  I learned quite a bit from Gregg over the short hour, but there was one piece that really stuck with me.  He told me a story about an exchange between him and one of his early mentors.   Gregg said:

…a guy named, Bill McGrane who was no longer with us; may he rest in peace. But Bill is one of these guys who back and even the middle 70s was challenging all the assumptions, and was a real fresh thinker.  One of the things that he said to me when I was 26 and sort of struggling for what to do and how to do it.

He said, “Become an expert at something.” And I said, “Well, that kind of takes years.” He said, “Not really.” He said, “If you read six books about anything you’re more informed about whatever that is than 99% of the population, and what’s an expert than to be more informed than almost everyone else.”  That, really, was interesting to me because I thought, “Wow, six books.” How long does it take to read six books on one subject; not too long right? For someone, for instance, who wants to be an expert on creativity and innovation, if you read six books, you will along the way, become an “expert” — if you read the right six. In particular I’d hope that Jack’s Notebook would be one of them!  Now, you haven’t got a PhD right? But you’ve got a good start at domain expertise, and that’s what you want.”

What I Learned:

  • Creative Problem Solving  had been around for quite a while and there is lots to learn.
  • You can break any endeavor down into small pieces to conquer it (ie: becoming an expert at something)
  • Don’t let roadblocks get in the way of your dreams.  Figure out how to get around them quickly and keep moving.

Fortunately, I had already read Jack’s Notebook and just needed to figure out what my other “expert” books should be.  I hit Amazon and grabbed a few newly published titles with the word “innovation” in them.  They were “The Innovator’s Toolkit” and “Innovation Tournaments”.  These two books taught me quite a bit about creating and supporting innovation systems inside companies.  How to get teams moving and how to foster creativity.    They were very helpful, but unfortunately weren’t very practical for someone further down in the organization as I was.   I really needed something more hands-on.
September 27th, 2010 :  That something came only a few short months later when Lucy, the same person who had nominated me to become an innovation catalyst asked me to help facilitate a Design for Delight session with her and a few other ICs.  We helped participants go on a customer safari where they watched employees in their native environment, got to learn from them, ask then questions and begin to dip their toes into a deep river of customer empathy.  The end goal was to apply what they learned to design a knowledge management system which would work well for agents across all of Intuit’s businesses.

What I Learned:

  • Deep customer empathy takes time and dedication.  Teams that spend 1-2 hours watching their customers will design mildly better solutions, but that is the tip of the iceberg.
  • Be willing to make rapid changes – The ICs were pulled together about 2 hours into the session to discuss some areas that weren’t going to plan.  They made a change to the agenda which ended up correcting the issue.


Tropical Depression or Tropical Storm?

2/23/2011 – The day for official Innovation Catalyst training finally came in late February.  I was so excited and nervous to finally get to go to training.  I knew it was going to be special, but nothing could have prepared me for the experience I received!   We were immersed in customers, empathy maps, problem statements and point of view exercises immediately.

— To be continued —


Rather than having this blog post turn into a book, I feel that it would be better to devote a full post to the Innovation Catalyst training I received and some of the lessons I’ve learned since.   I’ll end by saying THANK YOU to all of the great mentors that have helped me get this far.

Please provide me feedback in the comments below.  How is this story useful or valuable to you?

  • Dinesh katyal

    Awesome post. It reminds me of my own journey starting with when I pulled my team together a few years ago and announcing that we were going to be ‘innovative’ and use ‘brainstorming’. I wish I knew then what I know now about customer empathy, narrowing and rapid prototyping. But I also know that I wouldn’t be where I am now if I hadn’t taken that first naive step. So, to quote another famous innovator ‘Stay hungry, stay foolish’.

    • aaroneden

      That’s a great quote!  

  • Awesome post, Aaron! It is amazing how innovation can take us to the most rewarding and unexpected paths in life. Based on my knowledge of you, this is just the tip of the iceberg. The real fun is yet to come…Go Garious 🙂

    • aaroneden

      Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed it.  I’ll try to get part 2 going soon 🙂

  • Awesome post, Aaron! It is amazing how innovation can take us to the most rewarding and unexpected paths in life. Based on my knowledge of you, this is just the tip of the iceberg. The real fun is yet to come…Go Garious 🙂