EP 62: Melissa Kennedy: Everyone Can Innovate

Diva Tech Talk was excited to interview K. Melissa Kennedy, best-selling author, and Managing Partner/Global Innovation Facilitator at 48 Innovate (http://www.48innovate.com/) a novel platform for generating employee-driven problem-solving through nimble entrepreneurial practices in only 48 hours.  

Clearly a “change-maker,” Melissa owes her technology orientation to “good old Dad” who was a network administrator and “would invest any money we had at home in gadgets.” Melissa’s family had a Commodore 64, an Apple IIe and her father “really exposed me and my brother to technology at an early age.” In high school, she “dabbled” in tech; but went on to graduate from the University of North Carolina (http://www.unc.edu/) with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communications.  “I graduated right when the Dot.com bubble burst,” and went on to work for North Carolina State University (https://www.ncsu.edu/) as the campaign co-leader for an education bond referendum, where she heavily used email as a primary method of reaching her audience. “20 years ago, that was a big deal.” The initiative was a great success.  Melissa’s team was able to ensure voter approval of $3.1 billion in higher education bonds --- “the largest higher education bond in U.S. history!”  She went on to drive the university’s first comprehensive marketing campaign. Since NC State was becoming a tech powerhouse, Melissa’s involvement there “serendipitously launched my career in more STEM-oriented” directions.

As successful as her career at the University was, “the pace was just way too slow for me,” Melissa said. So, she employed “information interviews” to ascertain “the fastest way from a university/government path” to the private sector.  She decided that returning to school was her best accelerator, and obtained her NC State master’s degree in marketing, with a focus on technology companies.  She “ended up creating my own study abroad program. It was really cool to be in a situation where you learn the traditional graduate level material, but it was like a startup in a way: where you could test, try and evolve” the focus of the program. For Melissa, this “opened the door, and gave credibility and validation” so she could move from higher education and government to work for what was then a startup provider of cloud-based e-commerce solutions – Channel Advisor (https://www.channeladvisor.com/ ) That company enables retailers and manufacturers to integrate, manage and optimize merchandise sales across hundreds of online channels including Amazon, Google, eBay, Facebook and more.

Then Melissa want on to join tech powerhouse, Cisco Systems, (www.cisco.com). “That’s when my career exploded.”  Beginning in field marketing, she concentrated on medium-sized businesses as part of Cisco’s Commercial Business Unit. Cisco was “going down market” and beginning to target companies of 5000 employees or less.  Melissa felt like “I had a real impact on the business because I applied some of my skills from a startup I worked with, in ecommerce, to this big networking giant. I worked with 3000-4000 channel partners, helping them scale their marketing efforts.” Among other initiatives, she helped launch an informative online TV show: TechWise TV (“way before Google bought YouTube!”).  Melissa loved “being a part of a team willing to take some risks.”  She credits her ability to work cross-functionally across many organizations as being key to her 5-year Cisco success; and is grateful for this period allowing her to experiment with a variety of marketing techniques, processes and technologies usually resulting in positive outcomes but also sometimes failing.

From Cisco, Melissa jumped headfirst into the world of entrepreneurship. “I just went all in,” she said. “I got introduced to StartUp Weekend” (https://startupweekend.org/) a nonprofit 54-hour event convening North Carolina’s Raleigh-Durham Triangle designers, developers, entrepreneurs, and experts from all domains to do amazing things. “You would bring together people willing to go from concept to company” she said. “No money exchanged hands.  It was a pure exercise of teaching people, exposing people and developing an ecosystem, locally.”  Melissa facilitated over a dozen StartUp Weekends around the world (“from Rio de Janeiro to Cedar Rapids, Iowa”). Through her StartUp Weekend involvement, Melissa learned a lot of valuable lessons.  “It’s being in a safe place” that engenders learning something new.  “And you can take pieces and apply them through the rest of your career.”  She notes that “StartUp Weekend really helped the work I am doing today.”

Having had a variety of roles, what is Melissa’s advice for job seekers? Engage in information interviews. “It’s unbelievable how much information and advice people will share.”  Learning through her own career pattern, Melissa’s current company was born from insightful observations.  “Big companies have a problem moving fast,” she said. “The startup world taught me that there are tools and skills you can apply within big businesses to help them innovate.  And more importantly, you can help them enable and empower their employees to do cool stuff!”  She views her central mission as “making work meaningful, fun and productive, again.”  48 Innovate offers a methodology to help companies move from idea to concrete ‘executive proof’ plan in 48 hours or less.  “It uses pitch skills.  It uses design thinking.” She also deploys some “traditional” strategic management tools and planning, all wrapped into one fast-track program.   “Organizations can bring cross-functional teams to solve their greatest challenge or address their opportunity in 48 hours.”

“Innovation is simply change that matters,” Melissa said. “One small change can make a big difference.  Everyone can innovate, because everyone can observe and take action on one small change.”  Innovate 48 allows teams to reach across “silos”.  “Innovation is an experimental process. You have to enable cross-functional teams to do things, differently. Experiment and then scale. You have to teach people to work cross-functionally.”  Melissa also says that 30, 60 and 90-day follow-ups (“sprints”) are all part of the Innovate 48 process to ensure that cross-sharing takes place after the initial sessions, and that progress is being made, not just within the innovation team but throughout their organizations. “I’m passionate about helping other people do things they didn’t think they could do. I use technology in all of my work.”

Melissa has three tips for would-be entrepreneurs, startup founders, inventors:

  1. “You don’t have to know everything. If you get hung up on needing to know everything, you’re wasting your precious time, energy and talent.”  For things at which you are not naturally talented nor proficient, contract it to someone else, or consider partnering. Save your talent for what you do best.

  2. “You have to develop a ‘good enough scale.’  We’re plagued with perfectionism.  That sucks your energy and your genius.”  Melissa suggests evaluating your tasks and where you spend your time. Understand what the best use of that time is, given your talents, your skills, your unique “genius.”  Prioritize the high value tasks; concentrate on them.

  3. “The pursuit of innovation is all about practice.”  Practice being uncomfortable in times of uncertainty. Practice succeeding.  Melissa advises: “Start an innovation practice.  Start small. Do small things that are not part of your normal routine. Build the “strength muscle of being comfortable in the uncomfortable.” Then start applying for innovation opportunities (pilots at work, projects outside of your normal routine, etc.)

Melissa has written a book, that is now an Amazon (www.amazon.com) best-seller: The Innovation Revolution: Discover the Genius Hiding in Plain Sight,  to “share the things I learned.”  Following her own advice about taking risks she says: “It was a great experiment for me.  I had never written a book before. It was a ‘trial and error’ experience.” She discovered that “writing a book is lonely.”  A born collaborator (“that’s the premise of all of my work!”), Melissa found the isolation that authorship necessitated to be challenging. “There were days I wasn’t sure I was going to finish. But I persevered.”  And the book has been a “gateway for me to help others.”

Discussing failure “it hurts; it’s a little blow to the ego,” Melissa says. “Acknowledging it is painful, but it’s the first step.”  Then she counsels: “Walk away from it.  Try and get a little perspective; glean some learning.  See it as a path of discovery.” After inculcating the lessons, Melissa believes “then you start swinging for the big balls.”  Essentially, any failure allows you to “develop a tolerance for failure which lets you take more risk.”

Melissa says: “We’re in a new era. We have crossed from the Industrial Age, and its linear thinking, to the Information Age.  The tools, the processes, from the old age are not going to apply.  I have figured out to help leaders and individuals to make the simple change(s) that make a difference!”  She firmly believes “everyone has innovation within them. It’s up to us to go from idea to action.”

Melissa can be reached at her 48Innovate website (http://www.48innovate.com/) and on Twitter at @kmelissakennedy.

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