?What If! Interview with Matt Kingdon

?What If! Interview with Matt KingdonMatt Kingdon co-founded ?What If! with Dave Allan in 1992 and has led the company through both rapid growth and the unprecedented honor of winning the Financial Times ‘Best Company to Work For’ in Europe award not just once but twice (2005 & 2006).

A self-proclaimed “enthusiast” Matt works with senior client leaders who’re similarly enthused with innovation but often stuck as to how to make it happen. In the off moment he’s not relentlessly engaged with his clients Matt’s out banging the drum for innovation.  He’s the co-author of the best-selling Sticky Wisdom and contributes regularly to his own blog, Innovation at Work. Most recently, Matt published The Science of Serendipity: How to Unlock the Promise of Innovation in Large Organizations in November 2012. And when he’s not writing or serving his clients, Matt he frequently keynotes conferences providing a unique perspective on the “bear traps” awaiting organizations as they transform from sleepy giant to nimble innovator.

Before ?What If! Matt worked with Unilever, marketing their broad brand portfolio, first in the UK and then across South East Asia and the Middle East. He lives in London with his family. His hobby is having cartilage removed from his knees following marathons he shouldn’t have run.

Matt’s passionate about innovation, growth, and the serendipitous outcomes from the collision of observations and insights he sees as fundamental to success. And he’s outspoken about the very human dynamics he sees driving both the people and the process. Matt believes virtually all innovation is powered by “anger, paranoia, or ambition”; powered across a rather rugged journey that begins, in large corporations at least, when someone stands up and simply says something must change; something must be done.

I spoke to Matt at ?What If! London by phone from ?What If’s! newly renovated offices at 137 Second Avenue in downtown Manhattan.

Lou Killeffer: Hello Matt…

Matt Kingdon: Hey Lou, how are you?

LK: Wonderful and enjoying the gracious hospitality of your New York office.

MK: I’m envious because I love that office.

LK: Well, you should come over and visit sometime.

MK: (Laughs) I do often.  It’s been an off week.

LK: Matt, I believe I hold in my hands the only copy in North America of your new book, The Science of Serendipity. ( The Science of Serendipity: How to Unlock the Promise of Innovation in large Organizations: John Wiley & Sons. Ed.)

MK: Hey.  (Laughs)  Don’t get mugged on the way out.  That’s a valuable copy.

LK: Well, congratulations and let’s start there. Why write a book about innovation today?  As you know, there’s a tsunami of words and whitepapers, articles and videos on innovation.  Why write yet another book?

MK: Well, I guess the answer is I think this book is different. It’s a very practical book. Based on twenty years of experience in growing a business of over 250 people now and I think that’s at least part of its difference with the tsunami of material as you rightly call it. There are a lot of books out there but when you take a look at them, a lot are quite theoretical. I wanted to write something very practical, very useful.  I wanted to write something that was easier to read than the average business book, which as you well know, rarely gets read completely from end to end. I wanted to write a business book from the heart about what I know really works. So I guess that’s my reason.

LK: I must say I admire your ambition and I think you’ve succeeded. And the book begins for me with my very favorite quote of all time, Pasteur saying chance favors the prepared mind. Why did you select that quote?

MK: Well, when Pasteur said that, the full quote is actually, “In the field of observation, chance favors the prepared mind,” I think he was saying that the more homework we do, the more we’ll see, the luckier we’ll get.  It’s a bit like that quote attributed to quite a lot of people, but Gary Player mainly.  “The harder I practice, the luckier I get.”

LK: Yes, indeed.

MK: And I think that’s a wonderful, hopeful, optimistic way of looking at how folks in large organizations can get things done, and almost do the impossible. That is if they keep themselves open to an external perspective, if they keep debating in a really honest, open way with their colleagues, experimenting and trying things out, and if they keep putting themselves through that kind of distance, homework, and outreach, then they’ll almost inevitably find themselves to be luckier or more serendipitously successful, if you will.

LK: Right. You’ve another quote, new to me, that’s now my second favorite after Pasteur. “Serendipity is looking for a needle in a haystack and finding the farmer’s daughter.” Matt, that’s tremendous.

MK: (Laughs) Yes, isn’t that perfect? I agree.

LK: In Chapter One, The Protagonist, you say, “All innovation is powered by anger, paranoia or ambition.” What a provocative place to begin.  What exactly do you mean?

MK: I think people would like to think that all innovation is powered by strategy, clear thinking, and high principles, but I think it’s a much more rugged, human activity than that…If you think about how hard innovation is, in the sense of how hard it is to really make something happen in a large organization, you have to be powered by some kind of kryptonite to drive you forward. And you’ll find the people who really make things happen in large organizations are the people driven by some sense of injustice in the world, who feels something isn’t right – it may be a customer group isn’t being served properly, it may be your brand isn’t getting the share it deserves, it may be your career could be going further and faster.  It’s the kind of thing that eats away at people some of whom make a decision to stand up and do something about it. My belief is that there’s an element of dissatisfaction with the way the world is in all real innovation and we shouldn’t shy away from that or be embarrassed about it.  I’m not suggesting that people who innovate are necessarily grumpy but I do think they have a degree of irreverence for the organization that they’re in and a degree of dissatisfaction with the way the world is…

LK: Afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted?

MK: Yeah, something like that.

LK: It’s an interesting place to begin your book because you’re speaking about fundamentally human and quite emotional drivers.  You’re saying innovation’s not simply an intellectual exercise, right?

MK: Well, I’m not saying innovation is unthinking and I’m not saying that innovation doesn’t benefit from good analysis.  But yes, I am saying that innovation can be damaged by too many people spending too much time simply talking or that an organization with too much money and too many resources may tend to do too much research. Look, what I’ve found is invariably true: when you dig underneath the skin of why something was innovative, what people will generally tell you was there was a certain critical moment where they took the decision to work harder, to reach out to a different set of colleagues, to push something harder with their colleagues, and these moments are normally a combination of a certain kind of courageous or collaborative behavior. And you’ll find that the heart of so much innovation is a very human story which I think is uplifting.

I think it says to all of us that everybody can innovate.  It’s just a question of making things simple, having the right attitude, having the right behaviors with the group of people that you work with. That’s the core message of the book.

LK: As you discuss behavior with the people that you’re interacting with, you say, “Innovators are team workers, but more than that, they are collaborators.” What is the distinction between a team worker and a collaborator?

MK: Well, imagine a sports team, let’s say a soccer team and they’ve won a match and they’re congratulating each other, slapping each other on the back.  You know, they may say that it was great teamwork that helped them win, but it’s rather unlikely they’ll say it was great collaboration that did it.  That would sound kind of weird. When you think about it, the nature of teamwork is fundamentally different from collaboration and this is a very, very important point for innovators to get a hold of.

LK: Right.

MK: So a team plays a game where there are clear boundaries. There are the confines of the pitch.  The referee or the umpire who sets the rules. It’s clear how you win.  There are certain positions to play and you come and play to your best ability within that position.  So teams play with roles and rules.  That’s what defines team sports.

But when it comes to collaboration, which I believe is a better model for innovation, certainly more disruptive innovation, collaborators work completely differently.  They don’t know who they’re going to be working with along the line. They’re not entirely sure of their position.  They’re sort of trying it out.  There’s certainly no umpire or referee.  And what’s victory?  No one’s quite sure what victory looks like or where they’re going.  They’re experimenting with things and collaboration, essentially, has outreach, it has iteration, it has experimentation, it has a degree of self awareness and a degree of humility attached to it, which is not necessarily the same as teamwork.

LK: I take your point. Your analogy of the football pitch, the forwards and the backs have individual responsibilities which, if they succeed against, the team will succeed, but in a corporate environment, one could say the forwards and the backs are in silos, by definition.  In collaboration, you invade the other person’s silo, isn’t that right?

MK: Well, you may still work in a silo, but yes, you’ve got a broader perspective.  I mean, many people work in siloed organizations and very often, it’s a matter of choice, whether you decide to restrict your point of view to within your silo or you’re prepared to get out of the office, meet with new colleagues, meet some customers and really develop a shared obsession with what your customers’ want.  So, yes, generally, such an approach is a silo-busting weapon.

LK: Right.

MK: As is having a real customer obsession. It means getting interested in something other than just your company or your brand.  And that often means working with some colleagues from the finance team or the research and development team or the sales team, someone that you’ve bonded with around a singular goal rather than just working in your silos.

LK: In the second chapter you say, “Innovation is fueled by new insight, a deep understanding of why people do what they do.” Why is that so important?

MK: Well, because it’s why they choose what they choose, why they reject what they reject, why they engage in a commentary or dialogue about a brand or product and it’s important because like it or not, many people are a bit disconnected from why they do particular things.  They’ve never really thought about it very deeply. When you ask them why do you buy this brand or product, very often, they either don’t really know or they may just tell you what they think you want to hear.  So one of the core skills of an innovator is to get under the skin of why people do what they do and really understand some of those locked-in feelings and desires.

One of the big differences between doing this kind of activity as an innovator rather than simply a researcher, which is a well-understood, well-trodden path, is as an innovator, you’re constantly thinking about the outcome.  In fact, you’re outcome obsessed because innovation is entirely defined by outcomes, by something happening.

LK: Yes.

MK: So innovators are interested in insights, but only insofar as they can stimulate an idea or activity which can go on and be brought to market and deliver value.  So the search for insights, why people do what they do, is particularly exciting as an innovator. It’s not an academic exercise, it’s a very practical exercise.

LK: You go on to say that these insights are created by the serendipitous collision of provocative observations.  I’d like you to speak to that, but I want to back up for just a moment and touch on the definition of serendipity in the book. It’s spectacular and very appropriate.  How did you arrive at Serendipity as the title of the work?

MK: (Laughs)  Well, I don’t know what you think, but I’ve always enjoyed that word.  It’s a beautiful word, isn’t it?  It’s just such a nice word to say and it’s so very mellifluous.

LK: It is mellifluous, yes.

MK: A mellifluous word, but that’s obviously not the reason I chose it.  I simply decided to investigate what serendipity really meant and it took me on quite a journey…There’s actually quite a lot of controversy around the word and what it means and there are basically two accounts.  One account says serendipity is about happy accidents and the other account says it’s about the discovery of things by chance, but not totally by chance because you’ve tried so many things, you’ve kissed so many frogs, that you were bound to end up discovering something in the end.  So there’s an element of hard work behind this seemingly lucky concept and it seems to me that this fits the reality of the innovator’s journey perfectly. You know I’ve never worked on an innovation project in twenty years – and by now we’ve addressed over 10,000 innovation projects in the company – I’ve never worked on a project which has ended up exactly where anyone predicted it would.

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MK: What always seems to happen is that if we can fill ourselves with useful stimulus, pursue a clear direction and have the kind of open, accepting behaviors within a group of people which invite a collision of different ideas and different insights, then we’ll always end up in a place which is ten times more exciting than where we thought we might, and very often in a slightly different direction.

LK: Powered by, I would suggest, by a very acute sense of observation. MK: Well, yes of course. Innovators are very good listeners and they’re very good observers. By the way, I don’t think they’re necessarily creative people and certainly in our company , we have never used creativity as a recruitment criteria.  We prefer to hire smart people who can connect the dots and have enough emotional intelligence to work out how to drive an idea through an organization, which is probably the hardest part of the journey. But as you say, observation and listening are really important.

LK: Yes.

MK: And as we know in our daily lives, there are people who are like magnets to ideas, people you want to tell things to because you feel they’re interested in you. Innovators are very good at that and they’re very good at creating this magnetic field around themselves which attracts ideas and insights.

LK: I take your point. The creativity that a good innovator brings is driven to a degree by a comfort with ambiguity which traditional creative people have.  But you’re combining two things.  I never can keep it straight, right brain and left-brain, but there’s the observational necessity that’s almost the science, one might argue the science of serendipity.  And then there’s the creative aspect of not worrying about what these observations mean but having the emotional confidence to pull it all together even though you don’t know where it’s headed.

MK: Yes. Exactly. One of the things that we talk a lot about at ?What If! is the importance of being comfortably lost.

LK: Right.

MK: And the fact that if you’re in your comfort zone, if you feel you’re exploring things which have been explored before, then by definition, you’re probably not going to be very innovative. It takes a certain maturity to be able to handle working on assignments like this.  We work under a lot of pressure.  We have clients who are very keen for an outcome and yet, we have to work at a certain pace, we have to have time to explore.  We have to look under stones where we haven’t looked before and we can’t guarantee we’re going to find anything under each stone.

So you have to be a confident, mature person to go on a voyage of discovery like this with one of our client partners and you also have to know when to be able to switch from what I would call an expansive way of thinking to a reductive way of thinking. Picking up on your theme about the kind of left-right brain types, we don’t call it that at ?What If!.  We call it expansive thinking and reductive thinking and the fact that the typical innovation process is shaped rather like a Christmas tree.  If you can imagine, at the bottom it has a wider space.

LK: Yes.

MK: And it narrows in and it goes out a bit, it narrows in and it goes out a bit, and it narrows in and it goes out a bit, all up to a point at the top.  This is the shape of the process of innovation.  We’re expanding the opportunity and then we’re contracting it. Then we’re expanding it a bit more, then we’re contracting it a bit more and each time we go through a cycle, we’re narrowing it down, narrowing down the options. And it takes a team of people because I’ve never met the perfect person with this wonderful left and right side brain that is equally powered.  It takes a team with different skill sets to be able to navigate through a simultaneously expansive and reductive process.

LK: Matt, you’ve mentioned the pressures of time, of client demands.  What are the largest impediments to success for ?What If!, or any innovation consultancy? Is it time, money and the client?  Or put another way, when it doesn’t work, what typically gets in the way?

MK: You mean what gets in the way of our company growing or in the way of us being able to innovate brilliantly for our clients?

LK: I think the latter, which might drive the former.

MK: It very may well, indeed. I’d say the biggest issue in our space is not the quality of the new ideas, but the ability to drive them through the client organization so that they see the light of the day, the commercial light of day, in all the original beauty with which they were conceived.

Actually making things happen at work is tough and the bigger the organization the tougher it gets.  A lot of this comes down to risk.  When organizations are small or when people are early in their careers, they’re more willing to take a few more risks.  As we get more senior, we develop more obligations in our lives, our careers become more important, and risk starts to taste different. And like it or not, this dynamic has a kind of creeping impact which can affect groups of people at a large organization in a way in which they don’t even realize. The presence of self-limiting beliefs in an organization are tough because when we think about how we might achieve something at work, it’s generally possible to do, but it’s equally easy to let your shoulders droop, sit back and say, “I’ll never be able to do that here,” or “That’s just not going to happen here.”

LK: Simple resignation.  Hence, the need, as you put it, to battle the corporate machine.

MK: That’s right.

LK: How does one do that?  Is it a cultural issue, an organizational issue, a spiritual issue?

MK: Well, every organization’s different, but I think there’s an element of each at play. The one undeniable, organic truth about any type of organization is that the bigger and more complex it gets the harder it is to make something happen.  There are just so many moving parts and the importance of having real good agreement and alignment around what it is you’re going for, defining that goal in a way which is exciting and uplifting to people, so they really feel it affects their mojo, is critical. So that people can come into work feeling really excited about the challenge they’re working on. This is incredibly important in a large organization as a source of motivation to power yourself through the naysayers and cynics. So being excited about the purpose of the innovation, the good it can ultimately deliver and the battle that you’re fighting is really very important.

LK: You make an intriguing point.  When you speak about a challenge in most corporate cultures, and certainly with ambitious people, that’s a very positive thing.  Inherent in a challenge, of course, is success, but also the risk of failure and you spoke previously about risk being one of the impediments that a large organization tends to weed out of people’s daily lives.  In the book, you say about making ideas real is one practical way to help “tolerate risk”. What do you mean by “Making Ideas Real”? I take it, that’s a ?What If! term…

MK: Yes.  And it’s meaning is simple.  How many times has someone described  something to you, and you formed a picture in your mind’s eye, and when they eventually produced this great new idea you were disappointed?

LK: Most of the time.

MK: Most of the time. You know, our brains are complex self-organizing systems that rely on precedence.  That’s how human beings work.  We build up precedence throughout our lives and innovation is the opposite of precedence.  It’s about things that we could not possibly conceive of.  So the less we can use the spoken word to describe something that we want somebody to respond to the better. So unless I’m talking about tangible products, like a pan or new mobile phone, our ability to make it real in a very scrappy, low-cost way enables someone to give us a reaction to what we just produced which is very close to how a customer might react. And from that, you can learn a lot. If you’ve still got time or money left in the budget you can make another prototype and then another and then another.  And this cycle of making things real is the cornerstone of innovation and we call it “Making It Real” because we want to stretch out beyond just the concept of prototyping to challenge ourselves, “Can you make that real for me?”

That might mean, can you make it real in terms of the revenue it might generate or can you make it real in terms of what’s the customer experience is like. “Can you make it real for me?”, is a terrific question.  And if you put ‘now’ on the end – can you make it real now – you give it real urgency and supercharge the innovation process.  So people can’t hide behind 100-page PowerPoint presentations. They have to roll their sleeves up and mimic or create or prototype something, which inevitably drives the kind of dialogue that’s of incredible value during the innovation process.

LK: It’s as much an invitation as a question, isn’t it?  And it leads to iterative thinking, the build on the idea.

MK: It really does, and in my experience, to ask someone to help you make something real now, everyone understands what that means.  If you said to somebody, well let’s make the prototype now, it’s a far more complex procedure.  So we’re trying to make the innovation process as simple, as enjoyable, and as human as possible.

LK: Matt, you also write about, going to the “margins of your market.”  What do you mean by that?  Is that the place to look for ideas or solutions?

MK: Well, of course I’m not saying don’t talk to your customers.  That would be irresponsible.  What I am saying is that most of our clients talk to their customers a lot.  But so do their competitors and sometimes they even use the same researchers and the same research techniques.

LK: Yes.

MK: So they’re all eating the same food, the same intellectual food, and that is not a recipe for innovation. What’s more interesting is going to the margins, the edges, the earlier adopters. Or the rejecters, the people who are angry with you. Or the people who use your products or services in entirely unexpected and eccentric ways.  These people will have something out of the ordinary to tell you.  And there’s real gold in what they have to say, coupled with the fact that you’re far more likely to discover something that your competitors aren’t discovering.

So at ?What If!, we absolutely believe in talking to customers, but that’s only half the story.  You can also find real insight from the people who are producing the products, delivering the products, why the whole value chain has insight, not just the consumer.

LK: Couldn’t agree with you more.  You also make the point in the book that the physical space around us has a big impact on the way we think and interact with each other.  The space here in your newly renovated Manhattan office is wide open as one example.  How did you reach these conclusions?

MK: Well, at ?What If! we’ve opened offices all around the world over the last twenty years, and we’ve experimented with how to configure desks, walls, and sofas, you name it.  We’ve experimented with food.  We’ve even experimented with the location of the washrooms and what we’re trying to do is not actually create something that’s aesthetically pleasing, which is nice, but that’s not the point, what we’re trying to do is create collisions between people.

We think people are more productive if they can move around an environment which enables them to meet different people and use different spaces for different purposes. So if you take the tour of our office today, you’ll find that functionally, it’s well thought through.  There are many different spaces with different purposes. We set a lot of store by people eating together, for instance, because eating is a real mood changer. You can sit down with clients or with a colleague, stop talking about work, eat a nice meal together.  Suddenly you find yourself talking about the most important thing that you didn’t talk about in the meeting, and you’ve created a kind of sidebar conversation, that as we all know, is where most of the really great innovative discussions happen.  They kind of happen in the shower, on the way to work, on the way into the meeting, in the elevator, in the car with a colleague on the way to work.

They don’t always happen at the traditional boardroom table when you’re facing each other with an agenda, under time pressure, with a lot of people in the room.

LK: No more often than not, they happen how and where you suggest; up to and including where people pee, as you say.

MK: (Laughs) Yes.

LK: Matt, have you always been an innovator?  Did you always know this is what you wanted to do?  How did you get started?

MK: Well, oddly enough, my degree at university was a law degree, which amuses my colleagues because I think they’re probably right in assuming I’d be one of the world’s worst lawyers.

LK: (Laughs)

MK: Then I went to work for a very large multinational for eight or nine years in various marketing and sales jobs and it was there that I developed an empathy for all these hardworking people in big organizations who are good souls and who work so hard and want to make a difference but they sometimes feel that window is gone from their lives and it can feel too much like being a sorry-man sometimes.

I’ve always been interested in working with the real heroes of innovation, the people who can make innovation happen in large corporations, which is a far harder task than being an entrepreneur where you have nothing to lose.

I think innovating when you’ve got everything to lose is a noble pursuit.  And I think the market we’re in is a young market.  It must be like, oh I don’t know, how David Ogilvy felt on Madison Avenue in the 1960s.  This feels like a pioneering time for innovation.  The rules aren’t really written.  Despite that tsunami of books that you referred to at the top of our conversation, there are very few real authorities. And being able to help hardworking people become heroes of innovation just feels like a really good thing to do with one’s career. So it’s an exciting job with a great purpose.  And you know I genuinely enjoy Monday mornings.

LK: I think your analogy to Ogilvy and the advertising agency is apt. I think innovation is building upon many of the things that advertising set out to achieve under people like David Ogilvy and others…Well Matt, I certainly appreciate your time. All success with the book and I hope to have the opportunity to introduce myself the next time you’re in New York.

MK: Yeah, thank you Lou. I’ve enjoyed it and that would be really nice.

image credit: whatifinnovation.com; copyright Lou Killeffer November 2012 All rights reserved. Five Mile River Marketing

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How Companies Pursue GreatnessLou Killeffer is a Principal with Five Mile River Marketing. A versatile marketing strategist, Lou’s passion for communications and innovation has made him a trusted advisor to some of the world’s most enduring businesses and brands, from AT&T to UPS, where he helps enterprises embrace change, look ahead, and focus on sustaining success.

Lou Killeffer




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  1. Kara Sterner on January 7, 2013 at 6:18 pm

    really an incredibly inspiring article to jump start my 2013.

    so much of what was said about they type of people who drive innovation remind me why of i am in the role i am even though there are days/weeks/months on end it seems i am fighting the downstream current with no moment to rest in the near future.

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