Human Aspects of Innovation with Mauro Porcini, PepsiCo's Chief Design Officer & Author of The Human Side of Innovation

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By Brian Ardinger, Founder of NXXT, Inside Outside Innovation podcast, and The Inside Outside Innovation Summit. Discovered by Player FM and our community — copyright is owned by the publisher, not Player FM, and audio is streamed directly from their servers. Hit the Subscribe button to track updates in Player FM, or paste the feed URL into other podcast apps.

On this week's episode of Inside Outside Innovation, we sit down with Mauro Porcini, PepsiCo's first ever Chief Design Officer and author of the new book, The Human Side of Innovation. Mauro and I talk about the human aspects of innovation and the importance of love in the innovation process. Let's get started.

Inside Outside Innovation is a podcast to help new innovators navigate what's next. Each week we'll give you a front row seat into what it takes to learn, grow, and thrive, in today's world of accelerating change and uncertainty. Join us as we explore, engage, and experiment with the best and the brightest innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneering businesses. It's time to get started.

Interview Transcript with Mauro Porcini, PepsiCo's Chief Design Officer and author of The Human Side of Innovation

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 Mauro Porcini. He is PepsiCo's first ever Chief Design Officer, and author of the new book, The Human Side of Innovation: The Power of People in Love with People. Welcome to the show.

Mauro Porcini: Thanks, Brian. Thanks for having me. It's really a pleasure.

Brian Ardinger: I am super excited to have you on the show. I'm big fan of PepsiCo and your work prior at 3M, and you've got this new book out and I wanted to have a conversation about some of the things that you've seen in this world of innovation. How do you define innovation?

Mauro Porcini: That's a good question. Every time you touch, you start score, every time you take something, anything, it could be a product, it could be an experience, it could be an institution, anything in your life. You try to change. And now this change could be directed in a positive way. It could go in a negative way. It could be a major change. Destructive but true as we call those kind changes in innovation world. It could be very incremental, very minimum, but anything you do, the change, the status quo is innovation by definition.

Brian Ardinger: I like that definition because you know, I think a lot of people get hung up on the fact that innovation, they think it has to be the biggest change in the world. It's I've got to come up with the next flying car. But you talk about in your book, innovation is not just about that. It's about incremental improvements. It's just creating value in change.

Mauro Porcini: This point we are both making right now, I think is extremely important because often people out there, media, opinion leaders, are looking at companies investing in innovation, and if they don't produce the next iPhone, they're like, well, they're failing. They're not really extracting the value that they should from that innovation team, that design team, whatever is the form shape of that innovation organization.

And instead, in many situations that innovation is more in the genetic code of the company. Is happening so many different ways in the way you serve a customer. In the way you build experiences. In the way you promote your brands, or you build new ones. Or eventually also in some small incremental products that make your portfolio more meaningful, more relevant. Or financially more interesting for you and your shareholders or more strategic for your company.

So, it's very, very important to make this point. I read a few articles recently. They were attacking and challenging companies that were not producing the next iPhone after these loud investments in the innovation machine. And the reality, many of those companies are actually different companies today than today than what they were in the past. Thanks to that innovation culture that they built.

Brian Ardinger: Absolutely. I heard you talk about design and that great design comes from this earnest desire to make other people happy. Can you expand on that a little bit?

Mauro Porcini: That's how everything started. Thousands of years ago when the first act of innovation or design, because for me, are exactly the same thing happened. When the historic man or woman. Who knows if it was a man or if it was a woman, for the first time, took something that was available in nature, a stone, and modified that to give it a different destination of use. To use the stone as a more effective hunting tool. Or a tool to prepare the food. Or later on to decorate your body. Or later on to celebrate your gods.

By the way, just mentioned, three different dimensions of the Maslow Pyramid. You know, the bottom of the pyramid that is about survival and is safety and is your physiological needs. The center is about self-expression, the connection with others. And then the top that is about something that transcend yourself is bigger than you.

Yeah. And so already those utensils made out of stones were serving specific needs. They were all about reaching your happiness. Because the Maslow Pyramid, at the end of the day, the needs Pyramid is all about reaching what we call today happiness. If you work in all these dimensions. So already back innovation or design was an of love. This is how I start. Also, the book, innovation is an act of love.

An act of love towards yourself. If you were creating this for yourself, but obviously already back then, we were organized in little communities. We have people around us. We wouldn't have the concept of family yet, but you were creating these products also for the people around you. It was an act of love for them as well. And then you started to create more and more product by yourself. At a certain point, there were so many products. You needed help. You needed to start delegating the creation of those products to other people.

And then over there, hundreds of years and thousands of years, we started to organize ourselves in different communities. We invented the idea of work. We invented companies. Then later on brands. And so, what happened when that started to happen is that essentially you start to put scale. Literally scale between you innovator and the people that you love and that you are serving.

The scale plays the distance between the two of you and the love started to get lost in translation in the scale. And instead of love, you started to change love with profit and financial revenue and other things. And so, in the name of profit, eventually you could create products that eventually were not ideal for the people you wanted to serve.

But products that eventually you could extract as much financial value as possible out of. And so, this is what has been happening for hundreds of years, more recently. That we are surrounded by so many mediocre products and services and brands and experiences because they were created in the name of profit instead of the name of love.

What is changing today is that we live in a world, where if you don't create the ideal extraordinary, excellent solution for people needs and wants, the solution could be once again, a product, service, a brand, or experience. Somebody else will do it on your behalf. Why this was not happening 20 years ago, 30 years ago was simply because if you were a big company, you could protect your product. With big barrier to entry. Made of scale of production, of distribution, and communication.

Today. Instead, anybody out there can come up with an idea, get easy access to funding through kickstarter.com or their proliferation investment funds that are hunting for the next startup. The custom manufacturing is going down driven by new technologies and globalization.

You can go straight to your end users through the digital platforms to sell them stuff through e-commerce channels and to promote your products through social media. In these areas, these companies, the big ones, were building their barriers to end. It was impossible for the men and woman in the street to go compete with them

Today they can, and therefore the big and the small, they're left with just one possible solution. They need to really focus on people and really create something extraordinary for them. You may have the best product, the best brand. Very bad service. Your competitor will create the best product, the best brand, and eventually something with a better service.

Or you may have all of them, but your product is not sustainable enough. Or is not healthy enough. That's exactly where competition will come. Thank God we live in a world where the big and small need to do just one thing to create excellence for people. There is no space for mediocrity anymore. You cannot protect the mediocrity with your old barriers to entry anymore.

Brian Ardinger: I love that concept and coming back to the idea of innovation is love, if you think about one of the best acts of love is solving a problem for somebody. And at the end of the day, that's what innovation is. It's finding a problem and solving that problem for yourself or whoever's having that problem.

Mauro Porcini: And going maybe a little bit further, you know, many years ago, around 18 years ago, I was working at 3M. And 3M named that year, the year of customer satisfaction. The idea was, let's focus on the customer. Let's really celebrate and please the customer. This year more than ever. So was thinking about customer satisfaction and the etymology of the world satisfaction and the meaning of the word. And at a certain point, I realized that as a designer, as an innovator, I didn't care at all about satisfying the customer.

I really didn't care at all about satisfying the customers. I wanted to love the customer. What is the big difference between satisfaction and love? Satisfaction is all about identifying a need and fulfilling the specific need. But if you love somebody could be your children, it could be your wife or husband, or your parents and your friends. You try to do more; you try to do the magic. Then expect to go above and beyond. To really surprise them. And this is what innovators, the real innovators do. They want to surprise. They want to do the magic.

And you know that to surprise them, do the magic, you need an extra effort. You need to really change things. You need to do things that people do not expect. Not just the people you serve, but unfortunately, and this is the difficulty of doing innovation also, the people surrounding your boss. Your investors. Your colleague. There is a subtle difference between satisfaction and love, and I think love is really the word synthesized for innovation.

Brian Ardinger: That's a great. You talk about in the book how you have to go after and find these, what you define as unicorn employees. The employees that possess a lot of these key talents that you're talking about. Can you expand on what a unicorn employee is and why it's so important to have them in your innovation space?

Mauro Porcini: Well, the first definition that is also the subtitle of the book is There are People in Love with People. So, until now, we talked about how important it is to refocus everything on people. That's the second people in the sentence. We briefly talk about love that synthesizes essentially everything. The first people I started to focus on, the first people of the sentence that are innovators, entrepreneurs, the leaders of the world, the designers.

Many years ago, for a very practical reason, you know, everything is in the book comes from the practical needs that I faced in my professional journey. Who was this need? Well, I was building design teams in 3M, and I was hiring people, and I had a series of technical skills. They needed to be the best possible designers.

They also needed to be business savvy. They needed to have also you know, a series of characteristics that were very clear to me. And then I was giving more, less an idea of the soft skills that these people needed to have. And very soon I realized that it was so difficult to find the kind of talents that I wanted.

They had all the technical skills there, the business skills, but they were missing when something was important to move projects forward. Something else happened in part. I was there to introduce design thinking and design driven innovation, or as we call that kind of innovation, human center innovation in 3M.

And I was studying every other company, what they were doing, how they were applying innovation, big companies, small companies. And one of the trendy words of the time was Design Thinking. And of course, as a designer, I would introduce that idea inside the company. And they started to introduce the tools, the processes, the ways of working of Design Thinking.

This is what you were reading in books, listening, hearing, conferences, and what the, the consultant out there were selling to these companies. And so here I am. I started to run dozens and then hundreds of projects with this methodology. And some of them were succeeding and some of them were miserably failing.

And then you start to look at them. You start to analyze them. And then at the beginning I was thinking, okay, maybe the process is not the right one. I need to tweak it and evolve it and I need to change the way of working and some of the tools. And you do all of this and still some succeed in some not. And at that point you try to find what is the root cause of this. What are the common themes?

And you're right to want conclusions. That is pretty obvious if you say, but the reality in the companies, people don't talk enough about this when they talk about innovation. The difference was made by the people driving the projects. And there were people with certain kind of characteristics and people with others. Mindset, ability to observe reality and take certain kind of decisions, extract certain kind of insights and learnings, courage to drive things forward to face roadblocks, ability to take orders with you.

I mean, there are a series of skills that back then when I was hunting for all these people to join my teams at 3M, I listed literally in the list for my HR department. Because I needed these people to have this kind of characteristic. Then the list became a paper for the Design Management Institute Review. It became something that will share in conferences. And it became something very public for a simple reason because I wanted everybody out there that was interested to join my teams, to know what kind of people I was looking for.

And so, in the past 17 years. I've been tweaking and evolving the list. And two-thirds of this book is about characteristics and the way these unicorns think and behave. And some of them are more obvious than others, like the ability to dream and think big when you talk about leaders and innovation, obviously you need to think big.

It's not that easy though. You know, we think big, and we dream when we are children and then society try to convince us that is not okay. That that's a childish kind of activity. Because society wants to normalize people. They don't want people to dream too much because people need to be a feature and be stable, you know. Within the society that we have today.

Instead, we need to find ways to protect those dreams and we need to understand that when we dream, we'll face people that will push back on us. They, they will stop us from dreaming because that's what they believe in. You shouldn't dream or you need to be practical. You need to be pragmatic. The problem is that then even if you succeed in dreaming, that's not enough.

There are many people that dream, there are great visionaries, but are unable to make things happen. They stay up there in the dimension of dreaming. That is also very comfortable dimension because to make things happen is tough. So, you know the balance between dreaming and execution is very important.

Now, this is something that you hear about when you talk about innovation. You talk about leadership; you talk about design. But there are other characteristics that are less obvious. For instance, kindness, optimism, curiosity. How many times you heard the CEO or a business leader or a hiring manager asking, is this person a kind person or is this person curious or optimistic and, and there are many others. Again, there are 24 traits of these innovators.

And in my, again, journey, I found that these characteristics are what made the difference in my teams. At the beginning, even before I started to create this list, they were kind of intuitive. People love to be surrounded by people that are similar to them, so. I grew up in this family of kind people and optimistic people. I mean, it was just the way we were.

I wish all Italians were like this. Actually Italy, we have the opposite. Yeah, kind maybe. I don't know. But is the opposite. I think the problem of Italy today is that we're not optimistic at all today. Unfortunately.

At the second point, I realized with full awareness, the power of something like this. For instance, curiosity is what drives you to talk with others. To get out of your comfort zone and embrace people that think differently than you. Curious people usually love diversity because they see diversity, diversity of thinking and background, the precious gift of knowledge.

They know that people that are different than them have something to offer to them and they can learn from. And it doesn't mean that the other point of view is better than yours. It means that through dialogue and therefore respect to other characteristics of the unicorns, ability to create a dialogue and respect. To dialogue and respect, you can build a bridge with these other perspectives and your perspective.

Perspective number one, combine with perspective number two of the other person. Create a third or regional perspective, that is the novel perspective, is what drives innovation. Curiosity makes you read books and travel from one place to the other without just stopping at the meeting room where you're going because of the business commitment that you have. But going out in the city and getting lost in the city and observe people and falling in love with, you know, the way they talk, they behave, they dress, they eat, they drink, they read anything they do. Curiosity make you grow every single day.

Brian Ardinger: So, I'm curious to know, so you talk about these particular traits and that. Do you think they can be trained and taught to folks that are already on your team. Or is this something you have to go out and hire for and is it, is it in fact a unicorn from the standpoint of it's a mythical creature that doesn't always exist and is hard to come by.

Mauro Porcini: Yeah, exactly. First of all, as you mention it, the unicorn doesn't exist. The person that embodies, to the extreme, the 24 skills of the unicorn doesn't exist. And this is what the unicorn is about. Plato will place the unicorn in the world of ideas up there.

The Unicorn is an idea you strive to for the rest of your life. You want to keep seeing your life as a never-ending opportunity that will end with your death eventually, depending on what you believe in. And opportunity to keep learning. And so that's what the unicorn is about. And therefore, is implicit in the very idea of the unicorn that you need to learn, that you can grow. You can improve, you can become a better unicorn than you were when you were born.

So, I think there are two dimensions to the idea of the unicorn. On one side, there are talents you are born with, like you play soccer, and you are Maradona or Tennis, Serena Williams or you run and Usain Bolt. Those are people who are born with those talents, but they need to train also, Maradona, Serena Williams or Usain Bolt need to train that talent. We move people with goals.

At the beginning, even just building awareness. Realizing that I am Maradona. You know how many amazing potential baseball player or tennis player are out there. And there are maybe employees in a company or doing other things because they never became aware on an amazing talent because they never happened to play baseball for example. They just, you know, they didn't do sport and they ended up, or they were swimming.

And so the first role of education is build awareness about specific characteristics. And again, now we're talking about sports. But understanding the power of curiosity. Understanding the power of optimism. The power of humbleness. You know, a series of traits that can make the difference in your innovation journey.

The second goal is that once you're aware, you want to practice so that you can take it to the next level. The third one is that you want to, when you right to a certain level, you know, a professional kind of level, you think that you are done, because you are there. You're up there, you've been successful. You did amazing innovation projects.

You are Maradona. Somebody stopped learning, somebody stopped growing. And this is a big mistake driven by the opposite of one of the characteristics of the unicorn that is evidence. And the characteristic is that humbleness combined with confidence. So short answer, partially is natural talent, partially training. You may be born with less of a natural talent as a unicorn than somebody else. But you may become a better unicorn than a natural talent if you practice and if you get that kind of education.

Brian Ardinger: You brought up the fact that you got to be a natural learner and continually prime that pump. How do you stay fresh and current and connected to new ideas and that?

Mauro Porcini: Look, I practice that idea of curiosity I was describing also earlier. But while in the past was kind of random. Like I was just curious by nature. But it was very in efficient. Sometimes I was more curious, sometimes I was less. Today I force myself to be extra learner.

And really, you know, for instance, you may already understand from this conversation between the two of us that I love a lot to talk and you put me in a room, we start to talk and I start, and then I learn over the years, when you are in the room and you meet people, people you know, but especially people you don't know, that if I was talking too much, I was wasting the opportunity to learn from others.

So, one of the things I learned to do is to stop and list theme. Listen is so, so important. And also, not doing that just in a casual occasion, but also during a business meeting. During a design or innovation meeting. And this is so important because often people, for lack of confidence are there in those rooms feeling the gap of their, of the silence.

We justify their presence there, to build their credibility, even if what they're saying is not really meaningful to the conversation. It's not really adding value. There are so many of these people and to them, almost bothered by that because I feel it in my skin, like a waste of time and lack of efficiency in that kind of conversation.

I think we should talk when we add value to bring to the conversation, and we shouldn't when we don't. By the way, this value doesn't need to be just intellectual value. Maybe there is a moment that we need a joke or some irony. You know, to create a different vibe in the conversation. So, I'm talking about that.

But this is something important I think, and we need to always keep in mind. And then finally, a little trick, again, very spontaneously for me, I am very, very active in social media. Especially in Instagram, in LinkedIn. And I post every day in Instagram especially. And so, posting every day, you always want to have interesting content to post.

And so, this force you to walk the streets of life and be curious and see people around you and always hungry for an interesting thing that happens. So that you can snap that picture, that could become content. And it's not just the picture, but it's the story behind that picture.

So, you need to observe, you need to understand what's going on, and then you need to give an angle, a perspective that is your unique, that helps so much being alert and looking around and always observe what's going on around you.

Brian Ardinger: What it also allows you to do is to make mistakes. Like you can try things and you get better as you try things. I imagine the first time you posted a picture of your shoes, was maybe not the first best conversation piece, but I know that you do it on a regular basis and having the ability to learn and grow and change as you experience and do things, that's probably important trait as well.

Mauro Porcini: Yeah. You, you, you say two things that I think are very important here. One is consistency. You may do things at the beginning, look weird, but if you do it consistently because in a consistent way, then it becomes part of your brand. Or you may do things that people perceive as not authentic because they're like, ah, that's not really him, you know, or her in your social media or at work in, you know, in what you do every day, your company.

So, at the beginning, there will be this uncomfortable situation. People want to know, you know, why you're doing certain things. But if you keep doing that sooner or later, they will understand that you really believe in what you're doing. So, consistency is very powerful, but it requires a little bit of courage and getting out of your comfort zone at the beginning. When you disrupt, you do things differently.

Brian Ardinger: So obviously you work at a company like PepsiCo that's always doing some amazing things out there in the consumers world and headspace. What are some of the trends that you're seeing or that you're excited about?

Mauro Porcini: Well, there are three with an overarching platform that could be codified as an additional fourth trend. In our industry, but they're common also, many other industries. Sustainability, health and wellness, personalization, enabled by technology. Technology could attach itself to all of this dimension and really change the game. Sometimes people ask me, well, you've been 10 years at PepsiCo.

You were 20 years earlier in 3M, where do you see yourself in the future? The first part of the answer is that you never know, right? I was not planning to leave 3M and then it happened. But I'm not planning to, to leave PepsiCo anytime soon. And one of the reasons why, since 10 years I'm doing exactly the same job. And I could keep doing a job eventually for 20 more years, is that it's exactly these four challenges that I just made.

We're working in a industry that is in evolution. Is changing. And companies like PepsiCo give people like me, the platform to reach everyday billions of people. Billions of people. So even the incremental changes that eventually the media don't notice because they're not the next iPhone, who generate a positive impact, for instance, in sustainability, in health wellness.

That is exponentially bigger than anything a small company is, can do, and is doing today. The impact what we're doing today, with a variety of different activities that human center design driven is unbelievable. So, it's so exciting to work on these four dimensions today in an industry like this, with a company to give you this kind of access and resources as well.

For More Information

Brian Ardinger: It's exciting times we're living in for sure, and I really do appreciate you coming on Inside Outside Innovation, to kind of share your thoughts. I'm really excited about the book coming out. For folks who want to find out more about yourself or about the book, what's the best way to do that?

Mauro Porcini: If you follow me, my Instagram, Mauro Porcini and my LinkedIn. Mauro Porcini as well. I'm pretty active there. And then there is the possibility eventually even to communicate directly. So probably are the best two platforms.

Brian Ardinger: Well Mauro, thank you again for coming on the program. Very excited to continue the conversation in the years to come and appreciate your time.

Mauro Porcini: Thank you. Thank you, Brian.

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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