Innovation Processes in the Air Force and Elsewhere with Productable Founder Rachel Kuhr Conn

Rachel Kuhr Conn, Founder and CEO of Productable and Brian Ardinger, Cofounder of Inside Outside Innovation talk about the pitfalls and challenges facing corporate innovation and some of the processes and practices that companies can use to level up their innovation efforts. For more innovation resources, check out insideoutside.io.

On this week's episode of Inside Outside Innovation, we sit down with Rachel Kuhr Conn, Founder and CEO of Productable. Rachel and I talk about the pitfalls and challenges facing corporate innovation and some of the processes and practices that companies can use to level up their innovation efforts. Let's get started.

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Interview Transcript with Rachel Kuhr Conn, Founder and CEO of Productable

Brian Ardinger: Welcome to another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. I'm your host, Brian Ardinger. And as always, we have another amazing guest. Today, we have Rachel Kuhr Conn. She's the Founder and CEO of Productable, where she is turning the innovation process into software. Welcome to the show, Rachel. 

Rachel Kuhr Conn: Thanks so much Brian. It's a pleasure to be here. 

Brian Ardinger: I'm excited to have you on the show. I'm surprised we haven't had you on earlier. We have a number of mutual friends that have crossed paths. And we just only got introduced to recently. So, I'm glad to have you on the show. You've recently started a company called Productable, focused on the space of innovation and how do you create more repeatable processes and things along those lines. 

You've just landed a deal with the US Air Force to expediate the innovations process at the national defense area. How did you get involved in this innovation space to begin with? And then we'll talk about how did you develop Productable. 

Rachel Kuhr Conn: Really excited to finally connect after all of the different people we have in common. So, a little bit of my backstory is I was a bright eyed, bushy tailed engineer, thinking that I was going to change the world with amazing products. And dreaming of all the impact I was going to make. And my research area in school was actually around predictive analytics for innovation success. 

And so, there's actually a lot of data around personality type, team dynamics, methodologies that you can look at and actually predict what should be used and what the team dynamics should be to drive the best outcome.

So, in school, I was like, oh my gosh, industry must be amazing at solving problems. Like I just can't wait. And instead, I went into large corporation after a large corporation and just couldn't believe how politics and silos and just corporate bull crap for lack of better term, ruined every single opportunity I thought I had to ever make something awesome.

And so just personally, I got really, really tired of the amazing capacity that all these large organizations have. And I just could never quite create the thing that made it to the finish line. And so got involved in the venture capital world. Saw how things work differently. Got really inspired by it. And essentially started building our platform and what we call the Productable Way, which leverages VC mindset and built it more into a corporate friendly approach, if you will. 

Brian Ardinger: And you worked with Mark Cuban companies, and some other folks, to build out this philosophy or build out this methodology. Can you talk a little bit more about that? 

Rachel Kuhr Conn: So, I got so frustrated in the corporate world. I actually cold emailed Mark Cuban while watching a bunch of Shark Tank. Cause I was like, they say yes to a lot of things that I think my boss would have said no to. And so, I just had to figure out, figure out what the difference was. And in the venture world, it's okay to take a lot of bets. You're supposed to build a whole portfolio of bets. And you understand that the outcome of a few is going to be big enough to pay for the losses of the others, and then some. 

It creates this incredible culture of risk-taking and experimentation. And having the room to do that in corporates really is what's required to help large organizations overcome the disruption curves that are ahead. You know, you always have something that's eating these large organizations. And so, you really have to have a way of managing, how do you actually take a lot of bets on new ways of solving these problems and in overcoming these things to actually be able to succeed. 

Brian Ardinger: Well, I'm curious to talk a little bit more about how you came about creating Productable. So, you know, there are a lot of idea management, idea capture, innovation software platforms out there. So, a lot of people kind of taking a swing at this over the last 20 years. What made you want to try to tackle this marketplace? 

Rachel Kuhr Conn: For one, it was from the pain point. If one of those had solved the problem, I feel like I would've just run with it. I didn't really necessarily feel the need to be a founder. It was actually the pain that I couldn't go into corporate innovation yet again and face the same problems. And so, something about those tools just wasn't doing it for me. It wasn't solving that problem that you end up with ideas on a shelf.

And so, there's a lot of great idea management platforms that start to build that early stage of top of the funnel kind of solutions. But how do you actually move solutions through mid-stage and late stage of the funnel? And that's really where Productable comes of help. 

Brian Ardinger: Well and that's one of the interesting insights is I think a lot of people think that a tool will solve the problem, but really a tool is just a tool. And what really makes this thing work as far as innovation within big companies, it's a culture of innovation. And its processes and that that are around the intake of an idea. So maybe talk about how does process play a role in the actual software itself? 

Rachel Kuhr Conn: Yeah, absolutely. And so, it's a hundred percent culture where just a means to help support all of those things. And one of the big things is the company has to be willing to really invest in innovation. And if you're not putting your money where your mouth is, you're not going to get the outcomes. And so Productable is really a three-pronged approach. It's portfolio, progress, and people. 

And so what those three elements are, Portfolio Management is really about establishing and evangelizing a solid strategy that people understand. Making it so that you invest wisely in innovation, so that you're not throwing good money after bad. And you're making it really easy to expedite decision-making across the whole process. 

Then I'm going to actually switch to People Management. So that's more of like the top-down strategy if you will. People Empowerment is about honing the innovator skill so that you can actually empower projects to go through the right methodologies and tools and ensure you're involving the right subject matter experts. So, it's a little more of the ideal, if I was building a product, and building a company, these are some of the tools and processes I might. 

And then you would have to actually sync those together and that's our Progress Management. So, progress management, is like the way that a venture capitalist might get an update from a startup. And actually, here's our barriers. Here's our wins. Here's our asks. Here's how everything's actually going. Rubber meets the road. It's that kind of reporting so that when you're dealing with all the corporate stuff, that's preventing you from doing anything. It's how you actually manage all of those barriers and work through those pieces. 

So essentially that top down, bottom up and that syncing are those three pieces that we use to leverage in our software to help people innovate. 

Brian Ardinger: Well, I think it's interesting. A lot of companies struggle first out of the gate, just defining what innovation is. And trying to come up with that innovation thesis. You know, do they focus on core optimization types of innovations. Or do they go for the transformational stuff? And what does that even look like? Some people only think of innovation as one side of that bucket. Which it's not. 

So, talk about like how your clients and that use Productable or the approaches that you use to understand how to create that innovation thesis. And how to place bets across the different horizons of innovation.

Rachel Kuhr Conn: Well, that's a great question. And I would say we're very agnostic. So, we don't care if you're doing a core innovation or a disruptive innovation. But what we're going to do is be able to show you the math. So, if you're doing disruptive innovation and you're wanting to put all of your eggs in one basket or two and you're essentially say, yeah, we're going to do these two really disruptive ideas. You're going to see that whether you invest in two ideas or you decide to invest in 20, the math is still going to be true. 

That if you're going after a disrupting idea is probably like a 10% chance it's going to work out. And so, as long as you're okay with that, and you're doing two bets, great. That's your expectation. But maybe you should be going after 20 bets if you want disruptive. And in a core, it might be 90% success rate. 

And so, there's a lot of great data around success rates that corporates really miss. And so, it's being mindful of taking that risk tolerance at the leadership level and setting that standard of this is what a bet looks like. This is the check size. This is essentially what we expect our decision criteria to be. Our traction metrics. The same way a VC would. And then making it really visible essentially, so that when it's time to make a decision, they can decide if something fits in their portfolio or not. And then they can actually get the metrics to see how it's going. 

Brian Ardinger: So, let's talk about how people are using it now. So, give me some examples. Or some people or places that are taking advantage of your software. 

Rachel Kuhr Conn: Sure. So, we're working with the Air Force right now. We work with the Vice Chief's Office, the number two of the air force. And a lot of the DAF, Department of Air Force leadership. And the Air Force is a 700,000-person organization. There are, I mean, just hundreds of people involved in innovation. 

And it's really interesting at a large corporation, you tend to have a head of innovation and a group that works under them. And the Air Force is much, much more complex than that. I don't have a very straightforward answer of how it's all going. But the short answer is we're starting to look at how can we leverage portfolio management within the Air Force. And how can we build an ecosystem of portfolios to ensure that we actually have the right funds and system to ensure that ideas can go from idea to mid late stage and not fall into the valley of death along the way. 

Brian Ardinger: What kind of differences are you seeing between like maybe public facing companies or like private companies. Versus like the government sector. Do they treat innovation differently or what are you seeing from the differences? 

Rachel Kuhr Conn: I never thought corporate seems so simple. A 700,000-person organization turns out, I don't know if you've ever heard the rule of threes and tens. Things tend to get more complicated with three people, 10 people, 300 people, a thousand people, three, you know, so forth. And so, when you think about 700,000 people organizations, it's just what is a single approval at a large corporation is actually takes you to a different business unit that then manages the process that does that approval. That takes you to another business unit that manages. 

So actually, putting your arms around any sort of portfolio decision is so complicated. And it's so needed to be able to solve that in such a large organization compared to a small corporate, if you will.

Brian Ardinger: And I imagine the stakes are different, depending on the specific ideas and that. Like, obviously if you're doing innovation in and around things that could kill people, or, have a significant different effect versus you know, the new color of a new product that you come out with. I'd imagine the stakes are slightly different as well. 

Rachel Kuhr Conn: Well, the interesting thing about the Air Force is that it's actually, I think it's 94 bases and every single base works like a city. And I didn't realize this until I worked with the Air Force either. So, the Air Force, like the pilots, if you will, are part of the scene, but to support those pilots, you have to have a base where there's hospitals, hotels, restaurants, education, gas, like literally gyms. Everything you can imagine has to be on base.

And so, the Air Force is actually in charge of having every single one of those kinds of businesses within the Air Force organization. So actually, the kinds of things that we're helping are everything from childcare, gym apps. Yes, there are some more serious ones too. But I would say there's a surprising amount of comparables to industry of solving those kinds of problems.

Brian Ardinger: That's quite interesting. So, talk a little bit about some of the trends that you're seeing in the space of innovation. Or what are you excited about? 

Rachel Kuhr Conn: I think that people are really starting to see the need for portfolio innovation. Pre COVID there was a lot of, I'm talking about the corporate space. It was a little more okay to spend a lot of money and just see what would happen with it.

And so, I had a lot of connections that were in corporate innovation, they would get to try a lot of stuff. And then it was okay not to know what was going to happen next. Then all of a sudden COVID cut those budgets. And people got stuck. And they had to figure out what to do next. And I think we're, you know, everything was really held back.

But now I think we're in a really interesting space where people really want to innovate. They want to do something different. And they're saying, how can we make sure that we're going to drive real outcomes? And so I'm actually really excited for this new market that we're in. That I feel like there's a little more responsible. And also, proactive and engaged and really curious to see what they can do.

Brian Ardinger: Are you seeing the similar obstacles and problems being faced. Or is it different. Like has the mindset changed? Like when we talk about innovation, you know I think, and disruption specifically pre COVID, a lot of folks kind of understood it intellectually. But didn't really get it until everybody's lives had to change overnight. Are you seeing differences of how people approach innovation based on the world changes and that? Or what's different from that perspective?

Rachel Kuhr Conn: I think it's COVID, but I also think it's maturity of innovation in general. We've seen a lot of large corporations that have invested in, ahead of innovation. Where then the outcomes didn't quite reach the executive leadership expectation. And it's funny, I don't know how much people talk about this stuff, but I hear about it all the time. 

People get the job of head of innovation and then they try to get a certain amount of money to move their idea forward. For a specific idea, let's say. And then leadership says, great show your progress, and then we'll give you more money. And it's a trap. Because you need a lot of bets to succeed at innovation. 

And so, then there's like this problem that innovation leaders are put in this place where they're getting asked to prove success on something that is really a bet. And it gets really confusing. And all of a sudden, their neck is on the line for success. It generally doesn't end well unless they got lucky. 

And so, there's been like this two to three year rotation that happens over and over again. People are getting tired of it. Having enough after working at a few large companies, seeing the same thing over and over. Company is seeing that same person go through and not getting what they need, that they know something has to be different.

Brian Ardinger: Is there a way to prep management on that particular process from the standpoint, like you understand when you're betting from an LPs perspective, like in a venture fund, that you're not necessarily getting those returns, and you know, for 10 plus years. So that that's a much longer timeframe when you put that money in. Is there a way to prepare management for that more of a venture-based model? 

Rachel Kuhr Conn: We actually wrote an Ebook on that. So, I can share a link. I'm happy to share the Ebook on that, but yes. That's the biggest problem that we've actually seen. And we wrote all about it because yes, you need to get leadership in the mindset of they're really comfortable with index funds and mutual funds. Look at their retirement portfolios. They play this game all the time. They would never put all of their money in one stock. Why would they do that with their corporate money. So, it's really a mindset shift that we have to help drive. 

Brian Ardinger: Are you seeing companies get better? Or what are some of the things that seem to be working that people are adopting?

Rachel Kuhr Conn: We're seeing companies get better at it. One we're seeing them care more. And being mindful of it. And starting to put all the pieces together. And having more fruitful conversations. What happens after the theater? What happens after the demo day? How do we actually make this into something? Why does it always fail? Because you can't really get away with that stuff much longer. 

And so, the conversations are getting more real. I don't think people see the solutions yet, but I'm excited to see how Productable can help and really shift the industry of making that much easier for everybody. 

Brian Ardinger: Curious to get your take on this concept of inside outside innovation. So, a lot of corporates are interested in trying to come up with innovations within their four walls and that. But there's another set of corporates that are looking outside to startups and investing in startups and things along those lines. What's your take when it comes to betting on innovation, either inside or outside of the walls.

Rachel Kuhr Conn: Both are so important. You know, it's really interesting. I've worked in internal innovation and external innovation. The funny thing is they both kind of require each other and they don't really talk about it. 

And so, when you're doing external innovation, it's really easy to get excited about a startup and then go force it on a business unit and tell them that they should go pilot this product. And the business units kind of like, Hey, we didn't even need this. What's going on?

And then it's really easy for somebody in a business unit to come up with a cool idea, but then they don't get any of the resources to do it. There's a little bit of this magic of empowering people within the company to act like intrepreneurs if you will. And allowing them to leverage external startups and external technology, and actually allow them to partner together to really be able to build something that's a little bit of a mix of internal and external. And depending on the solution, maybe it's a little more one or the other, but it's kind of a funny thing to me that they often get so separated. 

Brian Ardinger: One of the things that we've seen that's been helpful is to get our employees actually involved in the startup scene. Just from being part of it, you know, going to demo days, going and mentoring at accelerators and that. If nothing else, it provides them that access to see how other startup folks with brand new ideas with no business models, how they move and interact. Versus how they would do it if they were inside their own walls. And I think exposure to the startup ecosystem, so to speak, can do a lot, not just like in finding actual innovations and that, but in the tool sets, mindset, skillset arena. 

Rachel Kuhr Conn: Absolutely. Yeah. I mean getting from zero to one, if you will, is, is really important. How do we actually go from what we're used to as everyday business and actually start thinking of more exploratory ways? How do we start thinking about growth and getting that mindset in? And it's a really hard dance to figure out of how long do you let that soak in and then start to create some of those other methods and ways of actually turning that into deeper transactions. And your company has to be ready for those. And so, I feel like it's a little bit of learning to crawl and then walk and run, if you will. 

Brian Ardinger: Are there particular resources that people should be following in the world of innovation? How do you stay up to date with all the stuff that's going on? 

Rachel Kuhr Conn: I don't have a great answer for that one. I have a lot of people that I talked to. A lot of consultants and great thinkers that I try to involve in my day to day. But we do have a blog and we do have eBooks and things that we're creating on our end to try and spread that knowledge as much as possible. 

I like to think that it's helpful and help drives all of that. But it is really hard to figure all of this out. I've been in this space for a long time, really trying to figure out what is expert look like. And it was really, really hard to get to the bottom of finding a lot of these pieces.

For More Information

Brian Ardinger: If people want to find out more about yourself or about productive, but what's the best way to do that? 

Rachel Kuhr Conn: Sure, they can go to beprodable.com. That's B E product able.com and I'm on Twitter. I guess that's probably the easiest way to do it. Design K U H R is my Twitter name and really excited to chat with anybody and see whatever they like to talk about. 

Brian Ardinger: Excellent. Well, Rachel, thanks for coming on Inside Outside Innovation. Very excited to finally meet you and have a chance to talk more. Love to stay in touch and keep you in mind for further conversations about the world of innovation.

Rachel Kuhr Conn: Perfect. This was awesome. Thank you so much for having me. And I can't wait to listen and hear more about what people have to say.

Brian Ardinger: That's it for another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. If you want to learn more about our team, our content, our services, check out InsideOutside.io or follow us on Twitter @theIOpodcast or @Ardinger. Until next time, go out and innovate.

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