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Think BR: Unreasonably ambitious: always pushing the boundaries

In this extract from his book 'The Science of Serendipity: How to Unlock the Promise of Innovation', Matt Kingdon, co-founder of ?What If!, examines how large organisations can still be innovative.

The Science of Serendipity: How to Unlock the Promise of Innovation

The Science of Serendipity: How to Unlock the Promise of Innovation

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Innovation starts with someone throwing a stone a long way. Innovators are good at this. They know that stretch goals - aiming beyond your own limits - create better performance. They know that their team, brand or organisation needs to work towards a picture of something that’s truly exciting. If this picture doesn’t exist then it’s very hard to do anything other than incremental improvements - small twists and tweaks.

Innovation is literally thrilling. The ambition of an innovation leader and his or her team needs a degree of unreasonableness to it, a feeling of ‘Wow, you’ve got to be kidding - how the hell are we going to do that?’ Successful innovators in large companies aren’t afraid to scare people shitless. When they find themselves surrounded by doubters, they develop a big fat grin - they know they’re on the right track.

Axe, or Lynx depending on where in the world you live, is one of Unilever’s leading brands and a good example of this approach. The Axe line-up of grooming products includes body sprays, deodorants, antiperspirants, shower gels, shampoos and styling products and claims to ‘give guys confidence when it comes to getting the girl’.

In 2002, inspired by a scene from The Matrix in which the protagonist is offered the choice of a life-changing pill, newly appointed brand director at Unilever, Neil Munn, created the ‘Republic of Axe’. This was a bold new brand culture within Unilever that had its own laddish identity. ‘We needed walls’, said Munn. ‘Inside was our vibe, our beat.’ Fuelled with the excitement of being a renegade team, bent on helping young men get ahead in the mating game, Axe has enjoyed strong growth each year with wave after wave of award-winning advertising driving successful new products (such as Anti-Hangover shower gel that ‘gets the night out of your system’).

This innovation journey, of course, hasn’t been all plain sailing. In its wake are discarded and banned TV commercials. More than once Unilever has apologised online for going ‘too far’ with Axe, thus guaranteeing cult status amongst young men the world over. How did Unilever, a megasized company famous for sensible household brands such as Surf, Persil and Knorr, manage to spawn such a maverick tribe?

To be entrepreneurial in a large company you can’t be afraid to leave 

Munn, who left the brand in 2006, says ‘I had to defend the brand, and my boss (the President of Unilever Deodorants category) had to give me air cover. Without this we wouldn’t have had the space and the confidence to flex our muscles and experiment – the brand is all about pushing it.’ Munn also created an ambitious and powerful allegorical device that became iconic throughout the business: instead of just ‘joining the team’, new members had to agree to ‘take the red pill’. This is a commitment to rapid and audacious decision-making that is played out daily in the Axe Republic (i.e. brand offices throughout the world) where decisions aren’t supposed to be safe. In a characteristic move, Munn once presented his annual plan on video while having a massage; an unusual move, but entirely appropriate to the brand.

Finally, Munn admits to several moments where he thought he’d pushed the mothership too far but ‘to be entrepreneurial in a large company you can’t be afraid to leave’, says Munn, ‘the dynamic in megacorps isn’t about fast decision-making, so our view was that we were going to just get on with things unless we were told to stop, which we never were’.

Large companies are like supertankers; they have a need to be predictable because their owners don’t like surprises. They are very good at moving in one direction at a steady pace but often poor at turning quickly and exploring uncharted seas. The story of Axe is highly instructive. It tells us that innovation needs a rebellious band bent on doing things differently; think of it as an anticulture. As these rebel teams push hard and fast, whatever they propose will sound unreasonably ambitious.

The story of Axe/Lynx is also a reminder that it can be more powerful to express innovation goals in human terms rather than complex business terminology. Think of Steve Jobs telling his team they were going to ‘put a dent in the universe’. Or one of my favourite examples, Victoria Beckham. When starting her career with the Spice Girls (as Posh Spice), she promised the world she was going to be ‘as famous as Persil Automatic’. Persil, a global detergent megabrand, was a great benchmark. If she had chosen to be as famous as a well-known movie star her goal would have sounded arrogant. The choice of Persil Automatic is easy to understand, has a charm to it, is memorable and sounds authentic. Business leaders take note - lessons come from the most unlikely places.

The overall challenge is for an innovation leader to articulate his or her goals in a way that:

  • Is expressed in everyday, blunt language
  • Is measurable or ‘benchmark-able’
  • Appeals to basic human instincts: to win, to pulverise the enemy, to make the world a better place, to get outrageously rich

So to lead innovation successfully, does the protagonist need to be a charismatic, larger-than-life character? My answer, of course, is ‘No’. Many who have successfully innovated in large companies work hard to manage their network and allow others to take the plaudits. Innovation leaders can be behind-the-scenes people who think deeply about the next move.

Matt Kingdon is co-founder of ?What If! Innovation Partners, and author of recently published ‘The Science of Serendipity: How to Unlock the Promise of Innovation’, a practical book all about cultivating innovation within large organisations. Matt and ?What If! have been at the front line of innovation for more than 20 years; in the book he tells the stories of large businesses grappling with innovation at scale, how they’ve succeeded or struggled, and what this can teach ambitious, frustrated corporate executives. ‘Unreasonably Ambitious: Always Pushing the Boundaries’ is an extract from Chapter One, ‘The Protagonist’.


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