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John Emmerling
  John Emmerling

Innovation in the Marketplace and on the Battlefield

12/8/2006 --

John Emmerling encourages creative thinking and taking risks.

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—John Emmerling, BBA '60, discovered his potential for creative innovation while a student at the University of Michigan. Instead of taking a dollar-an-hour food service job, he began writing humorous greeting card captions for Hallmark, which paid him $45 per idea.

Emmerling continued on to a successful career in advertising at Young & Rubicam and Richard K. Manoff before starting his own agency, John Emmerling Inc. in 1976 and then Emmerling Communications in 2001.

Today he is an "innovational speaker" and conducts Visual Brainstorming and Super S.W.O.TTM (innovative strategy design) sessions with clients including the Wall Street Journal, Time Inc., Dassault Falcon Jet, and GM’s OnStar Division. He is the author of the successful book "It Only Takes One: How to Create the Right Idea—And Then Make It Happen" and is a frequent guest columnist for Advertising Age.

Emmerling shared his experience with MBA students at the Ross School of Business at a Dean’s Seminar on November 28. His presentation was titled "Innovation—Unleashed!" Armed with props and poster boards for sketching, Emmerling outlined his seven principles of innovation and lessons learned from his recent work with the Army War College Foundation.

"Innovation is creativity with a job to do." These eight words are Emmerling's definition of innovation. He encourages clients to expect innovation from all areas of the organization—and not limit fresh thinking to product development, engineering and marketing.

Emmerling's first principle of innovation is to develop a well-defined problem statement—one that is crisp, clear, understandable and 10 words or less. Once the problem statement is defined, teams can "switch on" to begin the idea-making process. They should "open windows" to explore different perspectives of the problem.

Citing the visualized idea concepts sketched by Leonardo DaVinci and Thomas Edison, Emmerling emphasized the importance of thinking visually.

"Even if you can't draw, do a little doodle or rip an illustration from a magazine—these visuals will help bring your idea to life," Emmerling said. "Don't stop at one idea either. Aim for an 'idea surge.'" He pointed out that two-time Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling said: "The best way to get a good idea—is to get a lot of ideas." After generating a number of ideas, Emmerling suggests reviewing them all rigorously and "pick the best of the bunch."

The final key to successful innovation is to execute the idea fast and beat the competition. Using Google AdWords as an example, Emmerling explained how "innovation can create value faster when it happens fast." The money Google earns from AdWords is quickly re-invested in new ideas.

To many people, the U.S. Army and creative innovation are not synonymous. Emmerling's experience working with the Army War College Foundation proves otherwise and is the inspiration for his second book, currently in the works. In fact, "the Army actively teaches innovation and risk-taking," Emmerling said.

He told the story of Col. Chris Hughes, whom Emmerling interviewed at the Pentagon in 2005. In Najaf, Iraq, in 2003, Hughes (then a Lt. Colonel) faced a potentially dangerous situation as he led 150 infantry soldiers on a mission to approach the sacred Imam Ali Mosque and communicate with the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Out of nowhere, a shrieking, enraged mob of more than 1,000 Iraqis materialized. Unaware that the Ayatollah had asked for Hughes to make this contact, the advancing Iraqis were yelling angrily, shaking fists and throwing rocks.

Hughes calmed the mob by thinking fast and taking risks. First, in a peaceful gesture, he held his M-16 rifle high overhead with the muzzle pointed at the ground. Next, he ordered his men to "take a knee" and then told the kneeling troops to "smile at them." As the mob's tension began to ebb, Hughes decided to pull out and ordered his troops to retreat in way they had never been taught. "Just turn around and walk away," he commanded. Finally, Hughes stood alone facing the crowd, put his hand over heart, and bowed to them. These unexpected, peaceful gestures showed respect to the Iraqis and prevented further conflict.

At the Pentagon, Hughes told Emmerling that the Army is much more innovative today than when he enlisted. Officers are now taught: "how to think—not what to think."

How do lessons from the Army apply to business? The battlefield and marketplace have many common characteristics, Emmerling said. For example, the acronym VUCA applies equally—both environments are volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.

Similar to a commander leading troops, an innovative business leader should teach his teams how to think. Emmerling's advice is to expect innovation from all areas, encourage risk-taking, give permission to fail, practice table-top thinking exercises often and be a cheerleader.

As Albert Einstein said: "Enthusiasm is more important than intelligence."

For more information, contact:
Adrienne Losh
Phone: (734) 615-5068