Ep. 266 - David Schonthal, Professor at Northwestern University & Coauthor of The Human Element on Gaining Traction with New Ideas

On this week's episode of Inside Outside Innovation, we sit down with David Schonthal, Clinical Professor and Director of Entrepreneurship Programs at the Kellogg School of Management and Coauthor of the new book, The Human Element: Overcoming the Resistance That Awaits New Ideas. David and I talk about what keeps ideas from gaining traction and what you can do to avoid friction and resistance to new ideas. Let's get started.

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Interview Transcript with David Schonthal, Clinical Professor and Director of Entrepreneurship Programs at Northwestern University and Coauthor of The Human Element

Brian Ardinger: Welcome to another episode of Inside Outside Innovation, I'm your host, Brian Ardinger. And as always, we have another amazing guest. Today, we have David Schonthal. He is a Clinical Professor and Director of Entrepreneurship Programs at Northwestern University and Coauthor of the new book, The Human Element: Overcoming the Resistance that Awaits New Ideas. Welcome to the show, David. 

David Schonthal: Thanks, Brian. Nice to be here. 

Brian Ardinger: Hey, I'm excited to have you here. You have spent a lot of your career thinking about and watching what it takes to make new ideas happen. You've spent time at IDEO. You were co-founder of Matter, which is that 25,000 square foot innovation center in Chicago. Has some venture capital experience and that. And I thought we could start by telling the audience how you got into the innovation space in the first place. 

David Schonthal: By accident is the answer. It's sort of a long story, but I wound up becoming the COO of a medical device company in San Diego, California based on a radical shift from what I was doing before, which is tax software in London. 

To make a long story short, one of my former bosses called me up when I was just at my lowest point with tax and the UK, no offense to the UK, but it was winter, and it was like dark 18 hours out of the day. And he called me up and all of a sudden, I just, all I remember is him saying, yada, yada, yada San Diego, yada yada, yada. I was like, oh please.

He's like, would you like to know what the business is? I was like, no, not important. So, I wound up going and being the head of operations for an early stage medical device company. And then basically from that point forward was just bit with the bug around bringing new ideas to market either in the startup space, through entrepreneurship or venture capital or in the corporate space through design and innovation.

Brian Ardinger: And you've got a new book called the Human Element. I would imagine it packs a lot about the things that you've learned over that career. Since you've spent a lot of time seeing how early ideas get traction or not, what is the most striking problem that you see most people making when it comes to kicking off an idea?

David Schonthal: I think maybe the best place to start is by most innovators and entrepreneurs’ instinct that the idea is the thing that needs to be addressed. So, if a new product or service or strategy isn't being adopted by the market, most innovators instincts says well, let's make the product a little better. Let's change the way we talk about it. Let's drop the price. Let's promote it differently. 

And they make the thing or the strategy or the movement, the center of their attention. And in the course of my career, I've worked on some really amazing, I mean, some terrible, but also some really amazing innovations and products and services. And I was always surprised by how, even though clearly if these things were adopted into the market, they would make the world a better place, no matter how much we tweaked or change the idea that wasn't always the key to success of getting it introduced.

And so about four years ago, turned my attention to thinking about what is it that stands in the way of change and partnered up with one of my colleagues at Kellogg, who was a behavioral psychologist named Loran Nordgren. And together we've been studying this problem from both the applied side, as well as the theoretical side.

And that was the genesis of the book, which is that our instincts about innovation are too heavily biased on making the thing more appealing and not focused enough on helping the market adopt it by removing the friction that stands in the way. 

Brian Ardinger: Yeah. I love that. You kind of start off the book, this battle between what do you call fuel and friction. The idea that a lot of times, just to make an idea better, all you have to do is add more facts or more features or try to get more folks bought into it. But really, it's a lot about how do you eliminate the frictions around that? So, in the book you talk about four frictions. Let's outline and tell the audience how they can avoid them.

David Schonthal: Sure. So, if you think about a new idea, like an airplane leaving the ground or a projectile flying through the air. Fuel, to your point Brian, are all of the things that propel that idea forward. The need that the customer has, features and benefits, promotional strategies, but like an airplane leaving the ground there are also forces that stand in the way, whether it's wind resistance or sheer or gravity. 

And so, the book is really focused on these forces, these headwinds of innovation and the four that we specify in the book, the four frictions, our number one inertia, which is our desire as human beings to tend to stick with the status quo. Despite the fact that we know the status quo might be imperfect, our habits are surprisingly powerful. And so, recognizing that inertia is a play anytime you're trying to get somebody to change from what they're doing today, to what you'd like them to do tomorrow. 

Effort is the second one. All of the ambiguity, all of the costliness, all of the exertion required to get somebody to make that change. 

The third friction is emotion. All of the anxiety and fear that comes along with changing from something that you do today to something you do tomorrow. And you might not think that emotion comes into play for small things, but emotion comes into play when you're buying a pack of gum or when you're putting on a new shirt.

And then the fourth is what we call reactants, which is people's aversion to being changed by others. And each of them show up in varying degrees, depending on what you're working on in spotting them appropriately forecasting them ideally, so that they can be muted and mitigated is really the key. 

Brian Ardinger: And a lot of those frictions, they're almost not necessarily irrational, but they're definitely not something that you can take an economic model and say, well, clearly there's a cost benefit analysis and everybody should end up on this side of it because of the cost benefit analysis. But there's a lot of underlying things. And it seems a lot of this frictions around ambiguity or being comfortable with failure. How can you get folks more comfortable with that environment of ambiguity? 

David Schonthal: There's a couple of things that are packed into that question. Number one, ambiguity maps to the friction of effort. Effort we assume is like exertion, which is how much time and money will it take me to make a change. But you're pointing out appropriately that the other way effort comes in is ambiguity or a lack of clarity about how to go about doing something.

And sometimes that ambiguity can be so overwhelming that people are afraid to get started because they don't necessarily know how to get started. We talk in the book about a couple of methodologies specifically around helping people with ambiguity. One is around road mapping in simplification. Oftentimes our desire to get people to change is to like keep adding or keep making something better, add facts or add arguments to get somebody to change from what they're doing, to what you'd like them to doing.

I mean, just look at vaccines. For example, in the states. Like there's no ambiguity about the evidence that vaccines help protect against severe illness. There is no ambiguity. There is no doubting, the fact that if you get vaccinated, it will make the world a safer place. But that doesn't stop people from having resistance to that idea.

And one thing might be around the ambiguity about how to go about getting a vaccine. One might be around the perceived effort of getting a vaccine. The fear about getting a vaccine. And so understanding why people do or don't do the things that they do is really the key to addressing it. So simplification, streamlining, making unfamiliar ideas more familiar. 

Oftentimes innovators have this instinct that because their idea is new and radical. We need to highlight its newness and its radicalness is part of its allure. Oftentimes that actually works against us because the newer and more radical something seems the less familiar it is. And the more anxiety we have about how we're going to start to use it. 

And the great example of that comes from Apple. And if you're old enough audience to remember the introduction of the Macintosh OS. In addition to creating a new machine, one of the things that Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak created was a created was a new operating system for how computers are used. And unlike PCs or DOS-based systems, which you really needed to learn the language of computers in order to do something on a computer, Steve Jobs and other great innovators tend to have their products and services operate the way the rest of your world works.

So, when you're working on an Apple home screen, you're working on a desktop. And when you're creating a document and you want to store that document, you put that document in a folder. And when you want to get rid of it, you drag it into the trashcan. And these might seem sort of like cute user interface principles, but these were deliberately designed to make something wildly unfamiliar to people who had never worked on a computer to immediately feel more comfortable with it because it works, sounds, and it feels the way the rest of your world works. So even though something is new, doesn't mean that it should be projected as radically.

Brian Ardinger: So, if I'm a new innovator or I'm a startup entrepreneur, I've got a new idea I want to start building that out. Do you recommend mapping out these particular frictions or how do you find out what your audience or what your customers are fearful about? 

David Schonthal: That's a great question. There are a couple of tools we bring to life in the book. One is called a Friction Map, which is anticipating the frictions that might stand in the way of your new ideas. So, it is a document that you can fill out with your team. Where you forecast based on some clear questions that are asked in the Map. What is the relevance? What is the amount of inertia that might be present? What's the amount of effort, friction that might be present? Emotional friction that might be present in reactants? 

And then there's another framework around remedies. How might you take each of these frictions, test them in the market, but also test possible remedies to overcome. And the more you can bring this into your design process.

So, people will fill out a Business Model Canvas based on Osterwalder's work, or they'll fill out a Horizons Framework as they're forecasting what opportunities might exist. We also recommend filling out a Friction Map, which is what are the forces of resistance that might stand in the way. And what might we prototype to overcome those forces as a way of introducing this product or service or strategy.

Brian Ardinger: And then do you go out and actually test those assumptions? 

David Schonthal: Absolutely. Each of them can be prototyped. And yes, testing them with different audiences, testing different ways of communicating or making unfamiliar things familiar. Or identifying the sources of emotional friction so that they can be addressed in the messaging, and the way products are communicated. All are easy enough to test in low fidelity and oftentimes save us a lot of effort down the road when it comes to scaling offers up. 

Brian Ardinger: One of the other things I liked about the book is that you have not only these frameworks, that people can understand the methodology and that around it, but you also bring out some case studies in the book. And one of them is around Flyhomes, which is a startup company that built a new business model in the real estate space, designed to address some of the frictions in the market. So, can you talk a little bit about that case study? 

David Schonthal: It's a great story. So Flyhomes, for those of you who are living in the United States while you're watching this can appreciate, we are in the midst of a bananas housing market, residential housing market. Debt has never been cheaper. Inventory has never been lower. And as a result, desirable homes are just flying off the market almost the same day that they're listed, which creates a whole conundrum for people who are trying to buy homes, particularly first-time home buyers. 

Because when inventory is low, typically the offers that get accepted by sellers, particularly when they have multiple offers, are all cash offers or offers that are perceived to be low risk. And low risk offers are ones that don't have contingencies attached to them. Don't have home sale contingencies. Don't have loan contingencies. In order to compete, in order to get a home buyer, you have to either bring all cash to the table or convince sellers that despite the fact that they've got these contingencies, that there's actually a high degree of certainty, that something will close.

Flyhomes is a business that helps address this problem by making all buyers, all cash buyers, they have focused their business model on removing the friction that stands in the way of somebody buying a home in simultaneously removing the friction that stands in the way of a seller accepting the new one offer forum.

They didn't start this way. Flyhomes began, in fact, the namesake doesn't come from homes flying off the market. It came from the fact that Stephen Lane and Tushar Garg who were young entrepreneurs, started the business by thinking, all right, in the world of real estate tech, in the world of residential real estate tech, the big names or the new market innovations where things like Trulia and Zillow and Redfin, that had two primary value propositions.

One we're either going to take all home inventory off the MLS that exists only for real estate agents, and we're going to democratize it and make it so that anybody who's interested in looking at homes can see all available inventory, which is great. And then the second thing they typically did was discount brokerage. Meaning that if you worked with one of their agents, you would get cash back, they would discount their service fee and you would get some of that back in a rebate. 

And Steve and Tushar figured there was probably more that could be done in this market. And they being millennials themselves in doing some research, found that millennials, in addition to wanting to own homes, also desired travel, adventure, freedom.

And why is it that when we make big purchases on electronics or appliances on a credit card, we get all the benefits that come with a credit card, like points and travel miles. Why don't we get something like that with homes? And so, they created a product called Flyhomes, which is for every dollar you spend on the purchase of a new home, up into a half a million dollars, you would get points on an airline.

And they partnered with Alaska and Jet Blue. And Jet Blue actually sent out this mass email to all their frequent flyers saying we're now in this arrangement with Flyhomes, buy a home through Flyhomes get up to 500,000 frequent flyer miles on Jet Blue. In the first day, thousands of people signed up for the platform.

And Steve and Tushar looked at themselves like this is going to be huge. And then nothing. Like nothing happened. Nobody was buying a home through Flyhomes. Nobody was actually using the service. There was enough alure or to the idea that got people interested to like check it out and sign up. But that wasn't actually helping people make the progress. They really wanted to make, which wasn't getting 500,000 airline points. It was actually getting the home that they wanted. 

Flyhomes could address the real problem or address the real progress. All of these bells and whistles wouldn't make things easier. It would just be bells and whistles for the sake of bells and whistles.

So almost at the point of going out of business, they decided to pivot. And because they both had their real estate license started selling real estate. And by studying people in this kind of ethnographic way and actually getting out and selling real estate as realtors, they understood that the problem wasn't the points in adventure.

The problem was is that people desired homes in competitive markets that they were unable to access. And after two or three chances of putting in bids and having those bids rejected, people were just giving up on real estate all together. And so Steve and Tushar decided that if they could help address the problem of democratizing the ability for home buyers to buy homes in really competitive markets, that would be a revolutionary change. That would really change the game. 

And so, they pivoted over from points to friction removal. And today. Flyhomes is growing like crazy. They do billions of dollars a year in transactions. They just raised a really big Series C at $150 million. It's all because they changed their business model from fuel addition to friction removal.

Brian Ardinger: Excellent example. Now you've got a number of them in the book and that. What other hidden gems in the book that people should be excited about when they pick it up? 

David Schonthal: I think the most interesting stories and we try to have as many of them as possible in the book, so the ones that are counterintuitive. Like the ones that really check our biases and our assumptions about what we think the right way to do something is relative to what the science and the data tells us. 

And one of the things that I think readers who read this book will find is that in many cases, our instincts about what we ought to do to affect change are actually in some ways the opposite of what we ought to do to impact change.

And we actually start the book off with a really fun story about the world's most successful car salesperson. A guy named Ali Reda, who works in suburban Detroit, in Dearborn, Michigan. Who outsells every other average car dealer in the United States, by a factor of 12 to one. He single-handedly sells as many as 1500 cars a year, which is more than most dealerships sell in total.

And when you study Ali, and when you interview him and when you understand how he approaches car sales, that is so much different than his peers, what you learn is that he just frames his job radically different than every other salesperson. And I won't divulge too much about the secrets of how, but there's lots of examples in this book about how people who go left when everybody else goes right. 

And to succeed, but it's not just that they go left, it's understanding the psychology of what it is that they're doing differently than enables them to experience that success. Which is really, I think the beautiful thing about partnering with Loren on this is not only do we have examples about how these things work in practice, but we can also help people understand why they work psychologically.

Brian Ardinger: So, you've been in this innovation industry for quite a long time. What are some of the biggest changes that you've come across and how do you see the innovation space kind of evolving? 

David Schonthal: That is a, the ability for people to create new ideas and make them real has never been easier. The cost of starting a new business, the cost of creating a new product or service with digital technology has enabled everybody who once had an idea on a napkin sketch.

You now have the ability to make that sketch into something real and tangible and available in the market. And what I find now is, we've got a different problem, which is that the world is flooded with new ideas and flooded with new technologies. And whereas before it used to be hard to make an idea into a real thing. Now it's getting people to notice and pay attention and actually adopt your real thing. 

And one of the ways that we think about doing it is spending a lot of money on marketing and advertising and SEO and SEM. And yes, that's part of building awareness. But we don't often think about awareness as being one side of the equation. The other side is how do you make it easy for people to say yes. 

Well, one of the things we noticed about new products and services, particularly when you're creating a new consumer product is people will learn about it. They'll even go to the website, they'll put it in their cart, but at the moment before they check out, they'll abandon their cart, which means you've done half the job, right.

You've gotten them interested to come to the site at the beginning. You've gotten them interested enough in the features and benefits to actually add that, or imagine that in their lives, but something is holding them back from actually pulling the trigger. And I think, now we've created a world where making the idea come to life has never been easier. But how do we make sure that it's easy for people to adopt that into their lives so that they can say yes, and to get noticed in that way. It's no longer about features and benefits. Now it's just about making things as frictionless and as effortless as possible for people to adopt.

For More Information

Brian Ardinger: And the great thing about that is that's becoming easier as well. And people like yourself are helping in that process. So, David, thank you for coming on Inside Outside Innovation, to tell us a little bit about some of the secret sauce behind all that. I encourage people to pick up The Human Element. If people want to find out more about yourself or the book, what's the best way to do that? 

David Schonthal: HumanElementBook.com is a landing page that shares information about the book. You can find me on the Northwestern University, Kellogg School of Management faculty page, just Google my name, David Schonthal. And usually, you can find me there and I'd love to hear from you. 

Brian Ardinger: Well, thank you David, for being on the show and look forward to continuing the conversation as the years and the innovation evolve. 

David Schonthal: Thanks Brian. Me too. It was great to be here. 

Brian Ardinger: That's it for another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. If you want to learn more about our team, our content, our services, check out InsideOutside.io or follow us on Twitter @theIOpodcast or @Ardinger. Until next time, go out and innovate.

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