Ep 03

Building an Innovation Culture and Measuring Innovation Success

How do you build an Innovation Culture and what does that process look like? What about measuring innovation success? Ryan and Robert chat with Shashank Varma, an Innovation and Startup Consultant that helped launch the Innovation Accelerator at Kohler. Learn about Shashank's background and how he got started in the business, his innovative work at Kohler, as well as his expertise in coaching startups, making innovation repeatable, and more!

Presented by
Ryan Hatch
Head of Product Strategy & Innovation
Robert Kaminski
Senior Product Strategist
Shashank Varma
Innovation and Startup Consultant
Shashank Varma
Innovation and Startup Consultant
Andrew Verboncouer
Partner & CEO

Ryan Hatch: Welcome to exploring product where we go behind the scenes on what it really takes to bring new products to market. Too often, people focus just on the success stories. Our aim is to flip the script. We try to unpack what product teams actually go through when trying to bring new products to market. I'm Ryan Hatch. 

Rob Kaminski: And I'm Rob Kaminski. Every day, we're trying to build products that our customers love and we know just how messy and difficult product work can be. We don't have it all figured out and we're okay with that. Join us on our journey as we explore the world of creating new products.

Ryan Hatch: All right. Wonderful. Welcome to exploring product. Thank you all for joining. For those of you joining live exploring product, we are really talking about product strategy and kind of exploring that with corporate innovators startup founders and entrepreneurs. And today we have Shashank Varma Welcome. And we also have - yes, all right. 

Rob Kaminski: Welcome. Excited for this one. 

Shashank Varma: Thank you.

Ryan Hatch: Meet my cohost my co-host Robert, we're going to be digging into today uh, Shashank into the work you've been working on and super exciting. Cause you've got some exciting stuff to share about the work you've been doing at Kohler and through that.

And we'll start off with some background, but welcome. Thanks for joining us today. We're super glad to have you. here. 

Shashank Varma: Thanks so much for having me. I'm really excited.

Ryan Hatch: Wonderful. So we'll be talking about the innovation accelerator at Kohler and how you kind of got that going. But maybe before we go there, let's just talk about a little bit of background.

Like what led you before you were doing the innovation accelerator at Kohler, kind of I know you had some startup experiences and just talk about kind of where your starting point was before you got into what you're doing now. 

Shashank Varma: Yeah, absolutely. So yeah it's interesting. Cause like, just before I started the innovation accelerator, which was around like 2014, 2015, end of 2014, I was working on a startup idea and I was really struggling to kind of, work with my co-founders.

I was just trying to kind of get you know, just all of us to agree on things and move forward on one thing and kind of understand how to take kind of a hard problem and agree on a path forward. And then just do it. Like it was, I just kept s- struggling to like, get away from butting heads, you know?

And I just didn't know how to get out of that rut. I just couldn't figure out how to solve that problem. because it just kept impacting kind of our progress in the startups. So I'd been working on that startup for a few months as kind uh, of of wearable tech product. A- and At the time I just, fi- I just needed like another outlet.

I just wanted something else where I could kind of, you know, notch up as a win 'cause it just felt like I was going nowhere with that. Start-up and over at Thanksgiving break in 2014, I think that's when I had this idea. I was like, Wouldn't, couldn't I start something like that within kind of the confines of Kohler company, it'd be significantly easier.

I thought. to get you know, resources or other people, one of the biggest issues that I had you know, kind of living in Sheboygan in this area is this finding, co-founders finding other people who want to work on interesting ideas. I didn't really know where to go and find those people. So I would typically go to Chicago to see if there you know interests there.

And even that was kind of splintered is really hard to really find people in general. And I didn't realize that when I moved to Wisconsin, that was going to be a problem. I just thought it'd be cheaper to work on ideas 'cause Wisconsin is cheaper than New York. But I only thought it partly through the ecosystem is what kind of makes or breaks, you know, your startup.

It really it's not about you. It's about the people around you. And I learned that the hard way, unfortunately, but you know, I just had this kind of thought where maybe it'd be easier to do within the confines of Kohler. There are lots of really smart people there and maybe it'd be easier to get them to, you know, work on cool ideas.

And so the kind ...of the impetus was let's just, like get someone from marketing, get someone from industrial design and let's work on an idea together. And there were other things that kind of... Like one of them was you can just kind of noticing around my, around me and my team how people were working on their ideas.

And it seemed really interesting, you know, it was very inspiring to see so many people with ideas and just kind of the freedom to kind of work on your ideas. You didn't really have to get permission. If you had a cool idea that you thought you wanted to explore, Kohler is very supportive of those types of things.

So, you just kind of, you know, 3d print your idea to make it work. You know, things like that. So I just wanted to do that more and I thought there was an opportunity to maybe do it better than how it was being done at the time. I think that's a huge motivation for me is to kind of improve things the way they're done.

And so I thought instead of kind of. Us working in silos where maybe engineering works on their idea by themselves. Maybe someone from industrial design works on their idea from a, you know, with within kind of that function. How do we kind of, instead of waiting until an idea is developed and then get that cross functional feedback, can we start from the ground up to vet those ideas?

And I thought that may be a value add. So that's kind of where it started. I just kind of, you know, grabbed a couple of my friends like, Hey, do you want to just work on some cool ideas in our free time? And they said yes, because, you know, they're friends and they just want it to be nice.

Ryan Hatch: Right. And you're already not like a typical corporate person, like you're already, you've been already dabbling in startups on the outside while you were working at Kohler. Is that right? At the same time? 

Shashank Varma: Yep. 

Ryan Hatch: Wonderful. And what was your- 

Rob Kaminski: what was your role at Kohler with the, while you were doing the start up on the side? 

Shashank Varma: Yeah, so engineer kind of responsible for a few different or one main product category.

So I was hired into a team that was fairly new. That just started to kind of become its own product category for Kohler company. So if you see like faucets or kind of, Kohler products at home Depot or Lowe's, or, one of those types of channels, they came from that group which didn't have that focus until.

Essentially right when I joined that's when the company decided to kind of invest and it wasn't because I joined, but it was because of kind of a larger strategy that they had around kind of increasing the presence in the retail aisle. So, that was kind of my role just doing engineering stuff.

But yeah, I've always been interested in just more than engineering. I think. You could be a stronger engineer just knowing the other functions as well, but yeah. I've always been interested in kind of the business side of things.

Ryan Hatch: Wonderful. And what, I'm interested in, like, you said there there's better ways to do it. So I know like you kind of started making connections inside corporate, but I'm also interested in like, what was it like in the culture? Like, some of the problems you saw, some of the things you saw that you could improve or make go away or hurdles you you felt like you could kind of, take out or some, remove some of the friction with new product development or talk about kind of before the innovation accelerator, what was the culture there?

What was it like to c- to have new ideas and to work on stuff? 

Shashank Varma: Yeah. You know, so being kind of lower down on the totem pole, I didn't really have a whole lot of exposure to how everything worked. And part of, I didn't really know I was doing this at the time, but as a result of me just talking to a lot of people throughout the company, I started to learn how, you know, ideas were being developed around the company.

How different teams kind of worked and how maybe there were differences in certain teams and there weren't differences in certain teams in terms of how they approached mediation and kind of coming up with new ideas and things like that. And, you know, certain patterns started to emerge for sure. You know, things like but it's really important how you communicate the idea, right.

It becomes really important to your idea is just as good as how well you can communicate it. Right. And That sometimes is great. It's a great skillset to have, but not everybody has it, nor are we really taught how to do that. Well, in general, right? Regardless of your background, regardless of your function, we're not really taught to communicate our ideas really well.

So those people who maybe have worked on it really hard or naturally gifted in that skillset, generally stand out. And there are other people who are very, you know, very motivated to come up with new ideas and they're just always working on new ideas. But what I kind of wanted to do as I was talking to all these people was kind of recognize that almost everybody had ideas that ideas wasn't necessarily the problem.

It was really how do we not waste the company's time? On working on ideas that may not be aligned with what the company needs. And sometimes you can't really know, like if you're really exploring something and you don't know where it's going to go and you don't really know how it's going to impact the company's future.

Yeah, sure. But you, I think one of the things, one of the pieces that I started to put together was for innovation. You're, it's almost bad to think outside the box. I think the important thing is to define your box really well. And I really, again, this took years to really understand. But I just started to see these patterns, right?

Like people would have really cool ideas and really awesome prototypes that a competitor would come out with before we had a chance to really work on that idea. And I didn't really understand the disconnect, so, okay. We had this idea, why didn't we launch it? What was it, you know, what was it missing in it's pitch.

And so the intent was then kind of pivoted from just doing it for me, but trying to see if I could do this for the company to kind of serve a platform. Serve as a platform for the company where people didn't necessarily need to push ideas, but the platform helped pull really good ideas. So if you were motivated and if you kind of had, if you wanted to work on stuff, right, that went beyond your actual job duties, you could, that you kind of had a process in place.

And you know, I always, I think most people hate on process. I'm probably one of them, but I'm starting to learn, you know, over the last, maybe three years, the importance of really good process. With- without process, you really can't do things repeatedly and you can't predict or come close to predicting value if you don't have a set process in place.

And so I just started to kind of, you know, put those things together. and kind of expand the goal with this? So initially it was just supposed to be selfishly for me, you know, and probably still is actually you know, I want to learn how to work with all these different functions. I want to learn how to communicate ideas better.

But also I want to start seeing how we can capture these awesome ideas that are just floating around, but, and people maybe are motivated, but then how do we harness that? How do we, you know, kind of channel that. And So just [crosstalk 00:11:46]

Rob Kaminski: What was that? 

Shashank Varma: Yeah. 

Rob Kaminski: I'm sorry. to Interrupt. What was that like when you got started?

'Cause it's so interesting? I think what you're describing is a situation that a lot of folks get into. It really resonates with me. I remember feeling in a very similar position, wanting to get into innovation, wanting to work on new things, but sort of being not sure where to start. So I'm super curious. You said you started for you, like, what did the beginning look like?

Did you even know you were going to get into like setting the stage for everyone else? Or were you just trying 

Shashank Varma: Mm-hmm.

Rob Kaminski: ... [to find that one project? Like, what were you doing in those first few weeks, few months when you decided "Yeah, I'm going to do, I'm going to do this extra thing. It's kind of new. 

Shashank Varma: Yeah it's a really good question.

I think initially it was just like I had, I think three ideas that are just like written down, and before I wanted, before I started working on them, I just wanted to get other people kind of on those projects with me. And then, so it was literally 

Rob Kaminski: Mm-hmm.

Shashank Varma: ...just, okay, I got this idea. Do you think it's cool? What do you think And the next time we meet, let's all bring a couple ideas and let's just like, let's dissect those ideas.

So from the marketing, perspective [crosstalk 00:12:52] what do you think, you know, the potential of this idea would be from a design perspective, what do you think the issues are, you know, those types of things. 

Rob Kaminski: And you didn't have a boundary from Kohler because that was one part of maybe the culture that was there is they did let you kind of, at least with some of your time do what you wanted.

And so you didn't have to answer to anyone upfront with the extra time it was like, I'm just going to go do it. Am I understanding that correctly? 

Shashank Varma: Yeah. That's, what's cool 

Rob Kaminski: Okay.

Shashank Varma: ...about the culture at Kohler is if you want to do extra stuff, as long as you do your stuff, well, Yeah, go ahead and do that. But if you're not doing your stuff well, they'll let you know, like, y- you know, you will have that talk-

Rob Kaminski: Got you.

Shashank Varma: ... that's like, Hey, all right. So this is getting a little bit out of your hand you know, just make sure they ... "they'll nudge you back. It's not a super top heavy type of culture where do, as you're told, just, you know, kind of run with that. But It does I-

Rob Kaminski: Yeah.

Shashank Varma: ... think, vary from manager to manager too. there's some who are a little more controlling than others.

And so I was lucky to have the manager that. Kind of encouraged me actually to work on this type of stuff. He thought that would kind of align. He knew that it would align with my goals and kind of my interests, but also he saw, I think, potential 

Rob Kaminski: Yeah.

Shashank Varma: ...for the company as well. 

Rob Kaminski: Yeah. 

And so, so now what happens if you start working on this, you get these teammates kind of coming, you guys are sharing your extra time.

Like was the aim to like prove one concept. Like I'm so curious when you knew like, 

Shashank Varma: Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Rob Kaminski: ... [oh, I could be helping the rest of the org, do this versus. you just want to work on my one extra idea. Like, did that happen early on or did it take a couple of times through like 

Shashank Varma: Yeah-

Rob Kaminski: What did that look like for you? 

Shashank Varma: Yeah. So it took a few meetings for us to realize that, Hey, should we bring this person in too? this person would be really great at this point.

Right? I think initially it was. just The three of us, Just two of my friends, one from industrial design and one from marketing and myself, and we would just kind of go into a conference room and would just sketch out ideas and just oh, this would be cool, this would Be e cool. Yada. And let's go, okay, let's prototype this, et cetera.

And that maybe lasted a month or two, not more than that. So we were meeting basically weekly and then And then as soon as we realized, okay, if we want to bring other people, let's just start talking to other people. So I just kind of went on a recruitment drive and that's when I started to talk to other people and they started challenging me with kind of, well, why don't you start thinking of this as a platform?

I remember this one industrial design manager kind of helped frame this up for me. And sh- she was basically like, "Well, We have this problem of a surplus of ideas. We need to figure out how to vet them, to get to a stage where we can prioritize for the company, which ones we should work on and which ones we shouldn't.

And as soon as she said that, and, you know, obviously a light bulb went on and say, okay, so that makes sense. That started to kind of create a clear path forward for us. 

Rob Kaminski: What role was that? 

Who had the foresight to be thinking like that already? Even if they weren't taking action, when you came across them with your early projects?

Shashank Varma: I don't know if at the time there was a role. like that. I kind of depended on, you know, so there's without giving too much away, I guess. I'm not sure if I'm able to share some things on this, but you know, I mean, there's obviously a lens towards the future, right? I mean, Kohler in general is very driven towards making sure the future is safe and you know, kind of designing towards the future and things like that.

But we didn't really necessarily have a dedicated role of trying to figure out what the future would be like. It was always kind of part of a role of someone who's man- managing the current stuff. And so it was just an obvious gap to everybody. And so that was the gap that we were trying to fill. So, you know, like I recruited maybe 12 people right away.

And then, you know, the 12 of the brightest people that we knew through our like small network and those, again, very cross-functional didn't want to kind of lean one side or the other, but typically it was from the three functions, engineering design, and marketing. We had someone from project management as well, just to make sure that we were kind of. you know, Following a good cadence that we were not wasting time. Someone to kind of keep us on track with things 

Ryan Hatch: A- at this point in time, when you started doing the recruitment and you got, you know, you went from you're still you're in the engineering role 

Shashank Varma: [Mm-hmm affirmative]- 

Ryan Hatch: and, you know, started pairing on, I got this cool idea.

Let's get some prototypes going, let's sketch it out with marketing and design. And then. There seems to be something here w- I'm interested in. What, at what moment did you start recruiting people to do, to make it bigger than yourself? Right? There has to be something that kind of said, this could be something bigger. W- What was that moment? 

Shashank Varma: Yeah, I mean, it kind of built up towards it. it. Wasn't maybe like one fi like, you know, a single moment, but I think the closest to that was that conversation with that industrial design manager who kind of helped underst help me understand. that There's ma- perhaps a need like this for the, you know, from a company's perspective that is really just focused on working on new ideas.

Now there are certain groups within the company. So I sh- shouldn't completely discount the fact going back to Rob your question. I mean, there were certain groups that were kind of tasked on developing new technologies and kind of, you know, advanced development type teams. But again, there wasn't really, there were maybe very focused on very specific things.

So it, wasn't kind of a broad you know, lens for them. So as soon as kind of that became clear that maybe there's a broader need for a platform for people to you know, partake in, in terms of their innovative ideas or, you know, new product ideas and things like that. The recruitment kind of, even though it kind of started as.

Like let's cut together and work on cool ideas. Like we'll create our own idea bank and we'll just, you know, pick one at a time and we'll go through it and we'll learn from one another. You know, my pitch was like you know, I wanted to make sure that they were entrepreneurial that they wanted to maybe have their own company one day that they wanted to learn other skillsets you know, things like that. And so once they would say yes, we would just meet every Friday for a couple of hours. But instead of working on ideas, we kind of focused on developing this platform and this like proposal, what would this look like? 

[And I kind of got stuck in that phase for a really long time which looking back, I wish I didn't, we kind of stayed there for like nine months.

We were meeting essentially every Friday for nine months and we were just kind of refining this process. I should say too. I was talking with companies like, or people from companies like Nike, Google, and apple, who kind of ended up becoming mentors of mine and trying to understand how they did innovation.

And some of the things that gave me confidence was realizing they don't necessarily have a process either. It's a little more defined sometimes, but the main differentiator is just resources That just, you know, Nike-

Ryan Hatch: Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Shashank Varma: ... is a little more PR oriented so I think I just to make sure it looks really nice their innovation efforts, whereas Google is kind of it's on its own e- you know, island.

They just do some really like intense investments in these types of things like that. Just nobody else matches. And apple is kind of, a, like, a really unique too, where they just rely on people to sell their ideas well. So they rely on that clarity of thought from the ground up. So the teams kind of work on those ideas then they, you know, they're, they have pretty good freedom on working on their own ideas as well.

Again, they're not hurting for cash. Right. So, that's not a, i- it's not a hard bet for them. 

Ryan Hatch: Right. 

Shashank Varma: to make. So I, as soon as I realized that ideas kind of float the same way throughout organizations, I just saw. All right. So here's my opportunity. So even kind of looking at design companies like smart design and swag, like how they funnel ideas and how they kind of try to harness creativity to solve problems, just started to kind of take those, you know, processes or methodologies and try to include that in the way we would go about doing things in our proposal.

And so so I've worked on that for proposal for like nine months, which again, I ha- I hate saying that 'cause it just, you know, 

Rob Kaminski: who is that for? Like, what was the aim there? Like it was like lay out the process. But like, what was the ask and who are you asking it to 

Shashank Varma: Yeah. [laughs]

Rob Kaminski: [crosstalk 00:21:37] like, where are you going to go? Like try to get some resources.

Were you looking for more freedom? Like, what, what-

Shashank Varma: Yeah, we- [crosstalk 00:21:42]

Rob Kaminski: ... are you trying to do with that? 

Shashank Varma: I shouldn't even say we, It was just mostly me cause I was just kind of leading all of this. Right. So like, I was just convinced that we were going to get our pats on our back. We were just going to like have this amazing proposal and for the executives of the company, they'll look at it and go, wow, brilliant.

Let's just, you know, here's millions of dollars. Do whatever you want. Like how stupid, right? I mean, we just didn't think things through and we just kind of waited for stuff to happen and it was just kind of a silly approach looking back again, but I'm glad we went through that because at least for me, I learned through that, you know, how to kind of set up proposals, how to make value apparent through a proposal like that.

And it only pseudo worked. It worked for a little bit, but then, You know, to take an undertaking like this, it just takes a lot of commitment, a lot of capital, and you need to more than anything else convey trust. And you know, here's a bunch of people who just got together generally on the lower end of the totem pole and the company.

So How do we, you know, get that trust right away. And so instead of maybe continuing to push through that proposal route, we said, all right, let's just work on this stuff ourselves. And let's just show that this can be done. Let's- [crosstalk 00:23:02]

Ryan Hatch: [affirmative].

Shashank Varma: ...people on the team as, if they're interested as well. 

Ryan Hatch: Got it. 

Rob Kaminski: Had you tried to se- when you said you were asking for money or like you thought you were going to get all this money, like, I don't know if you could share, like, what really happened, like when you [laughs] you're putting together this whole process, was there like a big pitch meeting or could you, was it that you couldn't get to the right set of stakeholders? Like, because I love where you went like, oh, this is going to work. Let's just go do it.

What, what were Like the, almost the little pieces that triggered that when you knew, oh, we're not going to get the $10 million check from above to go around and 

Shashank Varma: Right.

Rob Kaminski: ... build and stuff. 

Shashank Varma: Fortunately not too long after we started. pitching we, we kind of realized pretty soon after that, you know, we were kind of missing the key kind of trust piece that we just needed to show it before we could get approval.

And you know, I started to kind of learn too about how to m- mitigate risks with things like this. I mean, for a company to sponsor a group of individuals who already have a 9:00 to 5:00 job, it takes, you know, how do they, well, how do they make sure that we're not just spending all of our time just doing this?

then. You know, so they need to manage that too. So I don't blame them at all for not really going with it. But initially the feedback was good. You know, the it's hard not to say yes to stuff like this, right? Like if you've got a group of like motivated indi- individuals who want to do something more than what they're doing, obviously they want to say yes, and that's what we got.

We got a lot of yeses, like, yeah, let's talk some more, let's talk some more and we had three asks. One was education. Like we want to learn how to develop ideas better. So everybody learns how to idiate. Like we know how to brainstorm and things like that. That don't really work. But how do we develop good ideas?

How do we vet really good ideas? And so we did a lot of research on how other companies do that part. So most companies don't do anything about it and they just rely on brilliance of individuals. And we just wanted to kind of go beyond that again, Ryan and I have talked about this a lot, you know, how do we make this into a process of where it's repeatable, reliable and predictable that it's not, you're not like waiting on a flash of genius from someone to come up with a really cool idea.

And so we kind of wanted to attack that. Then the other piece was space. We wanted a physical and digital space. We wanted you know, a place where we could just go in and kind of work on our own ideas. And maybe you get some help with CAD work. And again, the intent was to help those people who may not have those skills may not have CAD skills may not have, like, you may not know how to use tools.

And maybe if, you know, working on electronics or things like that, how do you get, you know, how do you make it easy for someone to just approach an idea? So take away, you know, taking away those types of friction. points. And then the third ask was time. So, you know, kind of taking Google fluid, asking for 10% time, if somebody wants to work on their projects, let them, you know, get 10% of their time to do that.

The 10% time I think we got right away the education part, we started to try that with kind of the team that I was a part of. We piloted that and I kind of, helped create a curriculum that was more geared towards. Developing ideas and less about coming up with ideas. Because again, coming up with ideas, I think is the easiest part of innovation.

That's not the hard part, even though everybody kind of focuses on that, it's really kind of setting up problems. It's really trying to clarify goals and things like that's the hard part. And so if we understand those tools and how to do that, well, then the ideation part just takes care of itself.

So that was kind of the, those were the asks. And most executives like, liked it. I mean, we had a pretty we pitched to every executive that we could get time with, which again most executives at Kohler, if not all of them have a very open door policy, like you can set up meetings with really anyone and you, can you talk about anything? And so I, we kind of took advantage of that and just kind of pitched them and everybody like, you know, like I said, just said, essentially, good idea, but how do we do this? Well, how do we do this? Right? 

Ryan Hatch: Yeah. So you get lots of yeses and no decision, right? 

Shashank Varma: Yeah. It was tough to kind of get them to take a decision.

Cause our ask, I think looking back again was kind of incomplete. So initially it was like, okay, let's trial this with one team With the team that I'm a part of, let's just start with them. And then we'll kind of, you know, grow that circle larger. And so we kind of took them through that education piece and we got the 10% and the space part, you know, that's a bigger investment.

So let's talk about that later. And it's not like we didn't really have a space to work on our ideas. It's just, you need to go through, you know, approvals to kind of work in those spaces 'cause of safety reasons and things like that. So we kind of got a little bit of a start, but then it kind of just stopped after that.

Like, it was tough to make a lo- a lot of progress after that. Cause I kept waiting for. you know, a kind of a bigger decision being made by executives and without really asking for a bigger decision, you know? So I was kind of not clear with that ask. And so ultimately what that ended up being was let's just do it ourselves.

Let's just like, we still want to do this. So, and we're learning from one another, right? Like I love what I'm learning from the marketing people in the group and what, I'm, what I'm learning from the design people in their group and vice versa. So let's just keep. that up. 

Ryan Hatch: Yeah. if I'm whoever you're pitching to , what ...by the way what level were you pitching to in the organization? 

Shashank Varma: Vice presidents and president. 

Ryan Hatch: Okay. Of product lines 

Shashank Varma: of business units. 

Ryan Hatch: Okay. Yeah, but I'm sure like you're trying to educate them on what good process is in the meantime. Whereas if they were to just see an idea, It's so hard to fund a process. to something abstract as this, you know, funnel of things.

This stuff goes in one [laughs] side and awesomeness comes out the other. And 

something we see, like we we've noticed working with a lot of different clients and projects. Is that like counter to wha- to kind of counter to what you're saying is people latch on to. Designs, like, what am I do a whole bunch of customer research?

And it's like, yeah, we might play videos for people, but it's like, 

Shashank Varma: Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Ryan Hatch: ...it's not real until we have designs. And then it's like, oh, I want that. And I'm kind of hearing some of the same stuff from what you're coming at is proposal for this awesome process, but let's just go do it and do show and tell let's make it real.

Is that kind of the conclusion you came to? If I'm understanding right? 

Shashank Varma: Yeah. For the most part, I mean, innovation is very nebulous for most people. Like the idea that you can maybe create a formula for innovation doesn't necessarily exist, even though people try to do somewhat of that. I mean, there are companies who try to kind of position themselves as they're like, we'll solve your innovation problems and things like that.

But again, I didn't set out to try to do that. It just kind of ha- turned out that way just because mostly from necessity, right? Like we're only. meeting Two hours every week. How do we get really efficient with our time? So 

Ryan Hatch: Yeah.

Shashank Varma: ...it just started to, okay, so we need to be really clear with what we're trying to do when we're doing it and how we're doing it so that we're not because initially, like from a couple of months we would just meet and then spend most of our meeting talking about what we talked about last.

time. So, again, this is what we meant. This is what this person meant. and we'd just be so painful and we'd go through a brainstorming exercise. I'd have 200 post-its and I didn't know what to do with them. I mean, am I supposed to like, not work out, like not do anything else, you know, and just go through these post-its and see, which is a good idea.

So how 

Ryan Hatch: Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Shashank Varma: ... [do we get people to take ownership of ideas? How do we get people to align their ideas up front? How can we filter ideas? upfront To align with objectives. And how do we design those objectives to be accurate, to goals for the business? How do we understand goals of the business? You know, what does five years from now look like?

You know, all these different things just started to kind of unravel and it just became kind of a, just an experiment of experiments for me. So I was just trying these things and a- you know, this team was essentially kind of Guinea pigs for me. And a lot of, I don't know how that sounds, but I was doing that with other startups too.

So I was just helping kind of facilitate some of this for a couple of my friends who were in other startups kind of taking them through. Okay. You guys are butting heads. I did that before. This is how I think you should do it now this time. And just kind of experimenting with different ways of trying to solve problems, ultimately.

But, yeah, [crosstalk 00:31:52] 

Ryan Hatch: it's amazing 

Shashank Varma: generally, It's very, like, it's very confusing to describe like most companies, way to do let's just get a bunch of people in the same room and they'll come up with something. Right. And then three 

Ryan Hatch: Right.

Shashank Varma: ...years down the road, you don't really get what you wanted. And so they'll stop the program.

Ryan Hatch: So if - yeah. I've been in those, you know, three years get excited, you know, get stickers everywhere and then gets unplugged. You know, I'm really curious about if there's other corporate innovators that are listening to this and they're thinking, you know, I want to make change inside my organization.

I have tons of ideas and I just, all the people maybe this internal network of s- people that want to do similar things. It sounds like in this, you're at this in this hero's journey or at this critical point of what you're saying is you've got a lot of yeses. Yes. This sounds amazing.

But you only get 10% of your time. And how did you there must have been a breakthrough. There's a breakthrough story here. How about, what advice would you give to someone who only has maybe 10% time? How, what do they do in that window? How'd you go from there to a real program? What did that, how did you do that?

Shashank Varma: Yeah, so, I don't, I mean, I can't really take credit for that, even though it may sound like it was all me. Ultimately I think the credit goes to the executive who literally called me into his office and said, okay, what I'm interested in? Is in this process that you guys are like, you know, doing? So basically what he said was.

Like those ideas are great. And, you know, that's what we were trying to sell to your point earlier. I mean, that's kind of what you were talking about too. right? Like you gotta show them the designs and that's what we were thinking. Like let's just show them what we could do, with this group. And so we had all these cool prototypes then, you know, other people started taking notice because they would see interesting things on our desks and they'd be like, what, you know, what are you doing?

And, you know, we'd kind of get a little bit of a buzz. We were asked to present to kind of the larger engineering organizations. Some of the ideas that we're working on, but again, people will be confused, like what is going on with this team? Like, why are they doing this or what's going on? But it was really the clarity of this executive who literally said, okay, so the value that you have is not so much the ideas and it's really the process that you're kind of putting your team through to come up with these ideas and doing it so efficiently.

And that's when it became. Truly valuable to the company. It wasn't really, again, I said all these things about, you know, flashes of brilliance that th this, that, and the other, but I was ultimately, that's what I was pushing. I was like, look, we're brilliant. We got these really cool ideas. Just let us do what we want to do.

But again, he kind of, saw through that and tasked us and challenged us to look at the process and make it more Kohler-friendly, so to speak. And that's when it became [crosstalk 00:34:58] became a program after that. 

Ryan Hatch: Okay. Very cool. 

Rob Kaminski: I'm really curious, because this is something that I've experienced around. You talked about. Inside versus outside the box earlier. Right. And, 

Shashank Varma: Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Rob Kaminski: ...you said within an organization like Kohler, you said knowing your sandbox and your place to play is really important. I'm really curious about the ideas that you guys were workshopping as you develop the process that kind of created the program. How close were they to core product and like what Kohler did versus.

You know, the other end of the spectrum, the kind of the mood shots, you know, were they in between Were they close to core, like, how did you approach that getting studied? 

Shashank Varma: Yeah, so I had a couple of rules, so the two rules were, if it was so the first one was, it has to be a category creating product. In other words, nothing like this should exist.

But if something like this does exist, that it's gotta be at least 10 times better than the existing version. And we get to decide what that meant, so 10 times cheaper 10 times faster, 10 times easier to use or whatever, but really those are kind of like startup rules, right? I mean, people talk about that a lot.

If you have those types of ideas, typically what that means is there's a high chance of a business. being suc- like successfully designed around that type of product. So that was kind of the goal. So it really kind of a rule of thumb way of judging an idea right away that we could kind of put in our idea bank.

Rob Kaminski: Nice. I like that. 

Shashank Varma: And I just realized I don't think I answered Your question, Ryan, I think you were asking if somebody else was doing this, what they would do or what they could do with that 10% time is that right? Did I not answer that question. 

Ryan Hatch: Yeah. Ke- kee- keep riffing on it if you want let's - that'd be great. 

Shashank Varma: Yeah. I think what, you know, what I've lear- if I'd do it again, I'd focus on that process piece because I think most companies generally see value in greater efficiencies and kind of, they're like, obviously if I'm a business owner, I want my people to be able to do more for the same amount of time.

Right. So if that's kind of your value proposition that we can come up with ways to do more with less that Resonates pretty strongly. So if you could, instead of just trying to work on cool ideas, figure out how to work on cool ideas for your company. And every company is different enough where your cultures dictate what that means.

But generally speaking, you're trying to do more with less and not trying to go really big upfront. It's like I think innovation is in many ways like comedy, which may sound weird, but I think, you know, like a really good joke is. Like devoid of any fluff. Right. And I think i- it's very similar for innovation too.

Like you don't want a lot of like fancy tools. And like, I think there's a lot of, lot to be said about an innovation culture. If you can kind of almost force your people to come up with like ways of using the tools you already got, you know, I think there's power in that. But having said that again, it depends there's some industries or some kinds of products where you need specific, you know, tools or whatever.

But generally I think there's power in kind of trying to use what you got and just organize it in ways that gives you more. if that makes sense. 

Ryan Hatch: Yeah, it sounds like both to Rob's point. And to your point, like to make this work, you had to come up with, Hey, how do we be efficient? What process should we use to, to do innovation efficiently?

Right. That's that's a big premise here. And you talked about yeah, 10% time and w- in in a second I want to actually talk about what are the successes you've had and kind of what you're doing, ho- how far that's come. But it sounds like, you know, Think outside the box, it's just come up with crazy stuff and then there's no limits.

There's no alignment. There's just come up with let's just brainstorm. Right. Versus I think if I'm hearing you right. If I understood what you meant by that is just to find the box really clearly it's to align on the business goals, business objectives, where's the company headed. How are we going to be lined with investments that the company is willing and wanting to make?

Right. And what problem are we. solving? You know, and then doing solutioning after that kind of clarity, is that where you're headed with that? 

Shashank Varma: Yeah, I mean, so an example that I use a lot is the potato peeler. I could come up with the best potato peeler design. That's like 10 times easier to use 10 times faster to peel a potato, et cetera, but that's not necessarily going to help Kohler achieve its goals because it's not aligned with what they want.

So even if I come up with something that's maybe genius, i- if it's not aligned with what Kohler wants then, you know, that's just a waste of Kohler's time. So I think having those types of boundaries and you can get very kind of prescriptive with those boundaries and you can kind of keep them open too, again, depending on what you want.

Out of your innovation efforts. I think the worst thing a company could do is kind of approach innovation without really thinking about what it is that you want to do. So not having a strategy for innovation is a huge mess for most companies. So not understanding how to translate business goals into innovation and innovation for most people is like new product and that we know that that's not true, right.

Innovation is more akin to like an ecosystem. It enables new products, but innovation isn't new product. And I think that kind of subtle, if you will, distinction means kind of the world to people who are actually trying to make innovation happen 

Ryan Hatch: I love it so fast forward. So what is the innovation accelerator program look like now?

What are some awesome success stories and stuff you can share? What's awesome. Look like how far has this come from? This kind of this inceptional moment that you kind of first, you know, started with? Where's it at now. 

Shashank Varma: Yeah. Cool. So I've got, you know, we've got essentially two roles right now.

One is to help all the different categories within Kohler company kind of solve their hard problems. So, those range from hard engineering problems to trying to find new business opportunities for a category to you know, two teams not getting along, how do we fix that problem? So that's kind of one role.

And the other role is to try to invent kind of cutting edge. stuff. know, stuff, that's not really anybody's roadmap, but you know, product manager maybe has an idea as like, Hey, I'm interested in this space. What do you know, what does that space look like in the future and what could be done? You know, things like that.

So we'll explore, we'll use some tools that we have in our toolkit. To do that. And you know, we've got uh, three trained facilitators now who are doing a lot of these workshops throughout the company which is great for me. I don't have to do all of them. It's time-saver for me. And there are others who are interested in becoming them becoming facilitators.

So it's growing s- slowly but surely, but Yeah, happy with that growth so far. 

Rob Kaminski: That's awesome. 

Ryan Hatch: Has that changed at all? Like how happens and who gets, what, what, like how teams working together, you know, silos to cross-functional like, how has that changed the culture in a way 

Shashank Varma: I'd like to think so. You know, I'm not I'm not you know, intimately involved with every single project, so I don't really know how. Individually people have been impacted by it, but I've seen, you know, the way people look at brainstorming. I think that has changed a little bit because I hate on brainstorming so much and I'm really loud and vocal about it.

So at least in my, like in my small kind of sphere of influence, I've seen people do less brainstorming and more kind of, trying to understand the problem. Now I'm not saying people didn't do that before, but maybe there's a greater kind of Want to do that. And it kind of greater awareness of trying to understand the problem first, instead of just shooting out ideas.

And also I'm seeing teams kind of getting together cross-functionally to vet ideas, which didn't happen. And there, you know, obviously cultural nuances that need to get managed. And as a result of some of the, s- the sprints and workshops that we've done, it's impacted how. You know how people get more awareness from team to team?

Because we try to, you know, when we do a workshop with, let's say one category, we always try to bring someone from a completely different category for that cross-pollination and so just kind of building more awareness of, oh, di- did you guys have this problem? I already solved that problem, you know, a couple months ago here, you know, that those types of connections tries, trying to facilitate those, I think that's also being impacted a little bit.

So Yeah, I'm seeing a lot of those impacts throughout, but with the pandemic last year, you know, we're f- kind of all started to learn how to do this virtually better. And so if you have any ideas on how to kind of do those meetings and kind of, you know, quick kind of. Like look at my desk type of things, but virtually I'd be all ears 'cause that's still a huge problem with the water co water cooler gossip or water cooler conversation type situations. They're just not easily done yet. 

Ryan Hatch: Cool. You know, couple of last questions and we want to to get any audience questions, if there are any and what you're working on now for the innovation stuff at Kohler. When you've looked at, you know, process and all the work that goes into that and facilitating these sessions across all these different teams and different types of problems that you're being brought into it from, like you said, hard engineering to, you know, completely brand new space.

You know, and we kind of started off with, we have lots of ideas, but they're not going anywhere. Right. How are you guys measuring or how are you reporting out or reporting up? Hey here's the progress you've made. How are you sharing that out? What kind of you measuring and storytelling you're trying to do internally? 

Shashank Varma: Yeah, that's a really good question. And it's something that we, you know, I've spent a lot of time and thought into. trying to Do that, where it makes sense for the company to track, because there's some like very obvious ones that you could do. Like, yeah. I know when we went through the workshop, we came up with 15 different ideas and we scratched 12 of them.

So, you know, that's a win for a lot of the, you know, a lot of the work that we're doing because being able to do that at that speed, where within a few days you're able to. With confidence say no to some ideas. Even though they may not seem like a win cause we didn't have a physical thing in our hands at the end of it.

That is a win. So positioning that obviously is you know, key and how you talk about things like that because I think at an intellectual level, most people understand that's a win, But it still doesn't feel like a win. And so there's a little bit of an educational piece to, how do we think about wins and how do we position these, you know, events in terms of its success and how we expect success?

So we're kind of, you know, I think this is probably the hardest part of what we do is explain to the team themselves. That you did well in this print, you know, or this workshop-

Ryan Hatch: [affirmative]. 

Shashank Varma: this was a great workshop. Like you got all these, you know, you guys agree on the facts, you guys, you know, the whole team is on the same page and you know, all this all this work and kind of progress was made, but being able to kind of show progress is kind of important too.

But then there's obviously, you know, there's an obvious winners. where We solve the problem, whatever the problem prompt was we solved it. And we kind of show it as such. So over the course of maybe three weeks, we have a solution to show for our efforts. And that one obviously is an easier metric. But it varies so much because again, like you could do, like, it's not a financial result type of thing, right?

Like it's not a financial report out where, yeah, we made more money this year compared to last year. 

Ryan Hatch: [affirmative].

Shashank Varma: All right, it's a little bit more nuanced. And so to be able to package that in a way that most people feel comfortable with what they're seeing is the challenge. 

Rob Kaminski: Do you think I'm curious one of the last questions for me, I know we're getting close to time.

You brought up earlier when you knew you had to kind of dive in, start showing some progress. You actually put off asking for separate space, digital, physical space, whether it was resources, money, larger team, has that something you've come back to, like, do you find yourself continuing to ask for more resources or have you been able to do that or do you still think about that as you guys make progress on buildingout the program? 

Shashank Varma: Yeah, it's a good question. No, we haven't really we've almost pivoted away from that approach where we've kind of become the central, you know, the place for people to come to f- with ideas. Now we're more facilitating and kind of accelerating problem solving throughout the company. We may in the future do that, but right now the focus is really just to help other teams work faster on their problems and solve them. 

Rob Kaminski: Gotcha. Is tha- is that a subtle shift from where it began? You talked a little bit about kind of the almost internal vision for early team members wanting to be entrepreneurs, run a company and shifting from potentially new venture creation into really high end problem solving internally. in Kohler. Is that a fair like assessment of how 

Shashank Varma: Yeah.

Rob Kaminski: ...that sort of transitioned using similar skills?

Shashank Varma: Yeah. So essentially we become an internal innovation consultancy, right? So we just kind of help people think about problems the right way. And we're just trying to, we just try to help position, you know, the kind of the goals and the data that we have. We try to organize what the teams know, and we try to essentially make the problem so clear that the solution becomes obvious.

That's the main goal of what we're trying to do. It's not always, a- it's not always possible, but that's the intent, that's what we're trying to do. But the kind of the interesting thing for most of us facilitators is that we get to see so much of the business. I mean, I would have no exposure to the rest of the company if I wasn't doing this.

And so it's almost like. It's like a cheat code for me to like, learn all these different businesses and all these different methods. It's fantastic for my education. I mean, I've learnt so much over the last few years. 

Ryan Hatch: Yeah.

Shashank Varma: ... still awesome. 

Ryan Hatch: And the, I like how you positioned that as an internal innovation consultancy, right? Cause there's different ways people do innovation, there's different models. Some of it is it like, Hey, bring your idea here. And we'll work on it with you here and become like, move your team.

Another one, i- like you're saying is. Actually going to the business, instead of pulling the business out, pulling those teams out of that business unit, it's actually you going to them and 

Shashank Varma: [affirmative].

Ryan Hatch: ...helping them level up. And what's really cool about that is you're gonna be living with people all across the, all across the business.It's really cool. 

Shashank Varma: [affirmative]

Ryan Hatch: fantastic stuff. So, you know, one of the, some of the other stuff you're working on, I know that you're like you were dabbling in startups before you've done a lot of work inside Kohler getting this platform set up. I think you also working on, was it a book or some other digital products?

What do you, what else. are you work working on? 

Shashank Varma: Yeah. So I've got a consulting firm on the side, where I kind of use my learnings, you know, within Kohler and working with startups to help other companies kind of set up their innovation programs and/or their NPD programs. and with startups. I try to, you know, my So I've founded two startups, so, and took one to an exit and the other one.

no- not to an exit. So taking an idea and I've launched a bunch of products, you know, working at Kohler as a, you know, someone in product development over the last eight years. So I know how to take ideas from zero to one really. Well, I think that's a, you know, a key skill set that I've developed. And so I try to help startups do that.

So How do I take an idea marry it to a market that makes sense, and then get to product market fit. That's kind of, my skillset or my value add to a startup for companies. Again, that's really focused on more of the stuff that we just talked about, really efficient processes for developing, you know, an innovation, pro- an innovation ecosystem developing new products, how to kind of solve problems and things like that.

So currently I'm working on. Launching, hopefully by the end of next month some digital products to help kind of growing companies. So people who are beyond that startup stage, we've gotten maybe a product out or a small portfolio of products out, but they may be struggling on figuring out what to launch next.

So helping kind of put the first kind of processes together, like first NPD process or first innovation process for these companies who are generating revenue through a product already. Just helping them through that. And, you know, I'd take some of my experiences with my father's businesses as well.

You know, he needed help in certain areas of the business. He always had companies by the way, when I was growing up and, you know, s- kind of seeing that from far, I learned a lot about being able to get help when you need it. And you know, what the repercussions are when you don't. So. Just kind of tapping into that as well.

You know, growing businesses like I have this special affinity for them. I don't know why it's like, I just, like, I, I just want to help as much as I can. And being able to kind of maybe use what I'm good at right now being able to kind of help those companies do that I think is is where my head's at right now. And That's where my, my, you know, a huge part of my focus is on too. 

Ryan Hatch: That's fantastic. So if I'm hearing you right, being able to take this stuff and bring it to other companies that already whether it's a startup or other businesses that have that, that are seeing success but actually want to spin up product number two, right. Actually want to start creating the next level stuff,

Shashank Varma: yeah. 

Ryan Hatch: and you coming in and dropping those, dropping that in. 

Shashank Varma: [affirmative]. Yeah. Cause a lot of their problems are well. So we're doing really well with this product. I know we can make this type of product. Should we make that product right? And often 

Ryan Hatch: [affirmative]-

Shashank Varma: ... with companies that are developing product number two or three is well, we'll just do what we can do and we'll see if it works.

And I think at that stage of a business, is just so open to, you know, if you kind of get that wrong, it's really easy to kind of tank your business at that point. It's very you know, what's the word? 

Ryan Hatch: Yeah. It's a big investment. 

Shashank Varma: Yeah. I mean, it's a big investment and it's very vulnerable. That's the word, you know, it's a vu- very 

Ryan Hatch: [affirmative].

Shashank Varma: ...vulnerable stage for the company, so you want to make sure you do that right. So, I think the stuff that I've kind of, developed over the last few years really helps with that. I mean, you feel confident, you know, the, m- you know, the messaging about the product and that's a huge part of a growing business. Like, you know, it's. gonna work. You're not guessing. So you can really then, you know, accelerate from the get go.

You're not waiting for stuff to happen. You can really maximize your returns from the start. 

Ryan Hatch: Awesome. Really cool. Well, this has been great. 

Rob Kaminski: Really, has.

Ryan Hatch: Shashank, really appreciate you sharing your story with us. 

Shashank Varma: My pleasure. Yeah. this is- 

Ryan Hatch: Yeah, this is so great. It Is there's so much we could have dug in, you know, dug deeper into and you know, what does your process look like, what are your sprints look like?

Shashank Varma: [affirmative].

Ryan Hatch: ...you know, it's always stuff we can come back and talk about later. Maybe when you're you know, Six months down the road. where we could do this again, something like that. 

Rob Kaminski: We gotta bring you back on. And even just 

Ryan Hatch: Yeah.

Rob Kaminski: ...to hear about what you're doing with WorkFrame consulting 

Shashank Varma: [affirmative].

Rob Kaminski: ... and how you're helping the, that second market or that second product launch. It's super, super interesting. 

Shashank Varma: Thanks, Yeah. I'd love to. 

Ryan Hatch: So how can people get ahold of you? Shashank? 

Shashank Varma: Yeah, you've got, you got my Twitter at the top of the page. You know, add me on Twitter. I'm trying to build an online audience. So yap, you know, support me there and then you can certainly email me or contact me through your workframeconsulting.com too.

If you want to talk about this stuff or anything else, really for that. matter. 

Ryan Hatch: Awesome. Well, awesome stories, [crosstalk 00:56:17] super talen- super talented guy. I appreciate all your experience that you're sharing with us and the community. And we'll be talking to you again. So thanks so much for joining us. 

Shashank Varma: Thank you. Thanks for having me. This is awesome. 

Ryan Hatch: Thanks for joining us today. We hope this episode gave you some fresh perspectives and even some inspiration to help you on your product journey. 

Rob Kaminski: You can access notes, Links and resources from this episode at exploringproduct.com. If you enjoyed it, please be sure to share it with us on Twitter so that we can chat about it together. Until next time, keep exploring.

show notes
  • Innovation Culture at Kohler
  • ‍What Did First Innovation Projects Look Like?
  • ‍Creating Innovation Process
  • ‍Developing Trust with Stakeholders‍
  • Is There an Innovation Formula?
  • Starting an Innovation Hub
  • ‍Guiding Innovation at Kohler
  • Innovation Efficiency Resourcing and Silo Collaboration
  • ‍Measuring Innovation
  • ‍Shifting Into Problem Solving