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In this episode of The Speaker Show, Maria Franzoni interviews Alf Rehn, global thought-leader in innovation and creativity.

Alf is a professor of innovation, design and management at the University of Southern Denmark and in addition a globally active keynote speaker and strategic advisor. He is particularly known for his work on creativity and innovation, as well as his innovative takes on leadership. He has delighted audiences from Atlanta to North Korea.

In this fascinating episode, we discuss a range of his views on issues including:

  • Innovation
  • Creativity
  • Contradictions of Leadership
  • Taboo Futures

Connect with Speakers Associates

Episode #216

Innovation where? for whom? for what?

Maria Franzoni (00:17): Welcome back to the speaker show with me, your host, Maria Franzoni. I had a lot of fun recording today’s episode. We’re talking about creativity and innovation, but in a way that you probably haven’t heard it talked about before, before we get started. Let me remind you that The Speaker Show is brought to you by Speakers Associates, the global speaker bureau for the world’s most successful organizations, providing keynote speakers for events, conferences, and summits. My guest is a professor of innovation, design and management at the university of Southern Denmark. And in addition, a globally active keynote speaker and strategic advisor, he’s particularly known for his work on creativity and innovation, as well as his innovative takes on leadership. He has delighted audiences from Atlanta to North Korea. Please welcome my guest global thought leader in innovation and creativity, Alf Rehn, Alf, how is Copenhagen?

Alf Rehn (01:11): Copenhagen’s treating me well. We are mostly post pandemic here and our companies are coming back. Live events are coming back. It’s quite fun, actually.

Maria Franzoni (01:21): Wonderful is lovely to have you join me. Thank you so much. I’m going to pick your brain. I want to know all the great stuff you know about innovation and creativity. All right. Let’s see how much I can pick of your brain.

Alf Rehn (01:34): Well, my pleasure to be here and pick away.

Maria Franzoni (01:37): Thank you. So you are a speaker in innovation, but you are totally over innovation. You say how does that work?

Alf Rehn (01:46): Well, I, I think we almost need to talk about both innovation and innovation in scare quotes. That is, we all know that the, we all know of course innovation is really important, but at the same time after literally thousands of books, endless kind of verse feels from CEOs, the, the cliches and the buzzword they’re, they’re tiring. And I’m in a sense, I’m, I’m over the empathy, talk of innovation. And in particular, what happens when companies make a big brew haha over, oh, we’re launching our new disruptive transformative innovation. And then it’s basically potato crisps with a new flavor. So there is that kind of tendency of calling everything and thereby nothing innovation and I’m totally over that bit.

Maria Franzoni (02:35): Okay. And, and before we go on, because obviously you are recognized as an expert in both innovation and creativity, how are they different? How do they, or are they interchangeable?

Alf Rehn (02:46): Well, one is needed for the other. Definitely. It’s very tricky to imagine even innovation completely without creativity, but creativity is obviously so much more. That is creativity. Is everything the, the way we create the way we reimagine a cookie or, or just express ourself artistically, which a lot of us has done during like lockdown. So creativity is the big field and it’s often presented as this happy go lucky field where we’re just having fun and just mucking about, but I’m, I’m, I’ve been practically interested in what happens when you really challenge our brains. When we go into fields of creativity that might seem dark or, or scary, frightening, even because those are often the best ways to truly find innovative new ideas. Innovation on the other hand is of course, okay, so anyone can have ideas. We all have hundreds of ideas a day, very rarely do we actually create something that is truly meaningful and then really creates value in society. So innovation is all about, okay, let’s pick an idea, let’s take something, let’s really hone it, develop it, build around it, realize it and get it out into the world. And too often companies can be really good at kind of thinking of lots of fun stuff, but lack the structure, the architecture, if you will, to really make a product or a service that truly brings new value to the world. So I fight in both these fields.

Maria Franzoni (04:16): Yeah, no, I can see that and I can see that you need one for the other. But it’s rare though that you have a speaker that, that is able to cover both of those fields because they’re both quite deep fields and, and, and you know, a lot of content for both. So it’s good to have that. Tell me, can anyone be creative because as you say, a lot of people think about it’s about playing and we’ve been in, you know, creative in lockdown, but is it true that we can really, or be creative?

Alf Rehn (04:43): Well, I, I would say that if you have a functioning brain, so a person in a coma might struggle being creative. Although we don’t know, could have really creative dreams. Mo I mean, I would say it incredibly rare for a person to be utterly non-creative. That would be a mental defect of some kind that might come from, from some form of a brain damage, I guess, because that would mean you’re completely literal. You, you definitely never think of anything novel. You’re just an, a robot. If you will, walking back and forth. The challenge, I think is a lot of people have the capacity for creativity. They might kind of be able to be creative, but on a fairly low level. So, so they, they mostly stick to the traditional things, the things they know, the, their conservative selves. And what I often do is kinda challenge them and say, everyone can actually become more creative than they are.

Alf Rehn (05:37): Or in fact, that’s the biggest danger is towards us who kind of perceive ourselves as creative because we have to work on it, not to slip back into traditionalism. I’ve provoked quite a few creativity speakers by pointing out that a lot of creativity, speakers, aren’t very creative. They do the same speech over and over again, the same kind of cliche points about creativity, the same kind of examples. I mean, aren’t, we a bit tired of hearing about the post-it note already. I mean, I, I must have sat through hundreds of speeches where somebody kind of goes, oh, and did you know the post-it note wasn’t invented, blah, blah. So I believe every got one should work on their creativity. And in particular people think, or they already are creative. They tend to be the ones I, I like to needle the most.

Maria Franzoni (06:29): Okay. I, you, so you’ve provoked me. I’m gonna needle you a little bit now, Alf. So do you create a new speech every time you speak for a client?

Alf Rehn (06:38): Yes and no. I, I never completely rerun a speech. I, I couldn’t do that. I never script I, I know speakers who, who work with very detailed scripts. I’m, I’m a little bit in awe over them because I, I could never, I’m not that good. An actor. I couldn’t memorize an entire speech. I do always customize speeches. Obviously there are cases that I’ve have that are simply too good not to be reused. But I also tend to speak in a somewhat improvised manner. I believe it’s important to stay fresh and to a sense actually, to become better as a speaker, not to be too scripted and planned because it’s when you’re out there in front of a thousand people you put up a slide, which only has two words, and you haven’t ever used that slide before, and you need to kind of do a bit of that tap dancing.

Alf Rehn (07:30): That’s actually, when at least my creativity is as its best when I have to kind of think quickly on my feet and of course, in a, with the audience because I, the, the reason why I keep my structures a little bit loose is as you well know, the speaker creates part of the speech, but it’s the audience that makes it great. And, and it is in the interaction between the speaker and the audience that we truly can excel. And if I use the same speech over and over, I would be in a rather surreal situation where it sometimes flops because it doesn’t engage with the audience, it doesn’t connect and sometimes might work brilliantly just because there’s that kind of fit almost by accident with an audience. So, yeah, I would, I customize quite a lot, actually.

Maria Franzoni (08:20): I love that. And I, I, and I’m sure you’re not talking about the post it note. I know, cause I’ve watched some videos. So I know I’m talking about the post it note, which is great. Although I happen to have one attached to my desk here to remind me of something. So your latest book is called innovation for the fatigue how to build a culture of deep creativity. Tell me about what you, you say, it’s your greatest book. In fact, people say, it’s your greatest book. It’s not you that said that. And so I’m gonna grab a copy after this. Tell me what you talk about here with regards to innovation, for the fatigued.

Alf Rehn (08:54): In brief, it, it came from a realization that I was going into companies and I was talking about innovation initiatives and, and creativity and so on and started realizing that more and more people were really tired of it all. They’d heard the stories so many times and I think I write it in the book, but I, I was shocked because one point a tech company, somebody come was up to me and without a hint of irony, he goes you guys normally come in may because was kind innovation on a calendar. And I thought that’s actually, there’s something really horrible about our age. So I started thinking about, okay, so how many people are, they were bit tired and started finding CEOs who were gonna, oh my God, I need to say that. Do my innovation talk again. I hate it.

Alf Rehn (09:43): You know, I don’t believe what I’m saying, told to me and kind of one on one and a lot of organizations where the culture needed to say these things about innovation, but nobody dare bring out any ideas because the organization had a complete mismatch between the talk and between the actually rather to toxic culture. So I wrote about, okay, in order, I mean, we say this in, for instance, the treated alcoholism in order to solve a problem, you need to understand you have a problem. So I thought we have an sort of in a alcoholism, we’ve gotten too hooked to the talk about it all to the flashiness, to the PostIt note examples. And we need to kind of deal with this issue. And I started talking about innovation fatigue that, that this has created a less, a, a loss of meaning regarding innovation and, and less creative organizations be because nobody really knows what all this talk is about.

Alf Rehn (10:40): So I wrote about the problem and why it’s important, we solve it and how you can kind of see whether your organization has gotten caught in this trap, but also how we can start rebuilding and how we can talk about things such as respect for ideas and for each other about reflection, how we actually can think a little bit rather just spew these cliches reciprocity and responsibility and, and how we can kind of utilize our creative minds to work together, to actually make innovation matter make it meaningful again. And I know that sounded awful lot like a Trumpism, but apologies for that. And, and it’s, it’s a, was an important book for me because I wanted innovation to be all it can be. Because I know that we humans, we have fantastic minds organizations can do magical things, but only if we kind of are solving the right problems and, and looking at things in a serious way, including look at the look at our problems and our issues.

Maria Franzoni (11:49): It does that, that is fascinating. And, and I love all of the advice you give about what we, you know, the very positive things that we should be taking on board. I think it’s interesting that human nature tends to become more innovative and creative and even more collaborative when we have a bit of a disaster you know, at the we’ve been going through the pandemic. And it seems that we’ve been very fast at creating and innovat and working together to solve problems. Do you think sometimes that’s, what’s needed in a company to shake things up that they need to face a bit of a challenge?

Alf Rehn (12:21): Absolutely. a disaster really focuses the mind and, and and, and instance, a disaster makes stuff meaningful. You know, that if we don’t solve this, we can’t go to the pub. That then that makes it really kind of hit hard. So you want to solve the problem as well, but you don’t need a catastrophe. Rather. I think that you need to, to understand your potential and, and to start the hard work creativity. The reason I, I sometimes have an issue with certain creativity. Speakers is creativity, gurus is they tend to present it all as fun and games and, and fun and games are important, and they’re a big part of it, but it’s also hard work if you’ve ever met a really successful artist, that person hasn’t just laid on the so fun kind of had nice daydream all, all their lives.

Alf Rehn (13:11): Something like Picasso was a workaholic always working with his hands, with the pain it’s kind of really in there. So the pandemic kind of brought out that bit of Picasso as the hard worker. And if the hard worker is there, we already have the creative ideas. So we actually can start doing things. And here, I, I kind of want to kind of emphasize another thing that I believe is often wrong in the kind of fun and games notion of creativity. People tend to say that children are very creative. That tends to be one of those cliches that creativity speakers come with. Now, when every one of us have had our children at home for long periods of time, do we any longer believe this? I mean, the amount of time, the same child can watch peppa pig over and over again, to the point where adults are seriously considering vodka and Valium that, that kind of, to me, shows that children can be actually very traditionalistic and we, adults we may have sometimes forgot are more kind of fun and inside.

Alf Rehn (14:17): But at the same time we had experience, we know how to work hard. We’ve taken a few beatings in our lives. So we, we know what a little bit about adversity as well. And, and I think that we, one of the things that companies often fail to use is the creativity and innovation potentially they’re older kind of employees and their, their older workers far too often, I go into a company and say, okay, I’m here to, to help you with this creativity. Oh yeah, here are these trainees. And 20 year olds we brought in because that’s what a creativity group should look like. And I’m like, no, bring me some 60 year olds. You can keep, I can keep a couple of these youngsters. They’re, they’re, they’re a good mix, but, but bring me some middle aged people bring me some, some of the old timers. We need to have a, a breadth and a diversity in this group, if it’s to have any meaning.

Maria Franzoni (15:08): Oh, here, here, who rather for the old, older people. I have to say Alf, I have, as I’ve got older, I’ve become more creative. Absolutely. so I’m so glad you’re saying that, and I’m definitely more creative than a child. Thank you for that. You had me laughing throughout and I didn’t want to laugh over you. So I had to be very careful. So we’ve seen what wonderful humor you bring. So, and that you bring that to your speeches. And I think that’s so important at the moment. We it’s been all a bit sad and serious. So I’m really pleased that you’re bringing humor. Does humor play a part? I know you’re saying the fun part is over, over you know, overemphasize, but, but humor often, you, you have to be a bit creative to be funny.

Alf Rehn (15:52): Humor is an incredibly important part for me to me, creativity, and also an important part of speaking. The reason I, I, I kind of want to throw in some jokes into a speech is not just for the chiefs, although I’ll take those as well. But the fact that we actually remember jokes far better than we remember a boring or, or a statistic. So I gotta try to bring in a little bit of mur and a little bit of kind of playing around and also laughing at ourselves and how traditionalists we can be because I believe that’s a way to make people remember. But also humor is the fantastic way to, to kind of open up when we think about our assumptions and and how often we kind of limit ourselves rather than kind of look at the, the, the myriad of ways in which a certain thing can be interpreted. So you have, you have to kind of also look at what is funny in a specific group. What does make a specific culture of because that can tell you a lot about how they think and how capable they are of, of adding new perspectives to their ways of working.

Maria Franzoni (16:59): Brilliant, brilliant. And tell me, so when organizations bring you in to speak about creativity or innovation or both, what is it that they’re hoping to get from a speech? Because obviously a speech can do a minimal amount and you need to do more with an organization, but what is it that the, the outcomes they’re hoping for or that you deliver? I should say,

Alf Rehn (17:20): Well, sometimes clients will say stuff like, oh, we need something to shake something up. We need a provocation. We need for some reason I’ve been often asked to come in and provoke people. I don’t know, maybe it’s my face. But and sometimes they kind of just, no, no, we just want to be better at creativity, which is a rather general remit, really. So I have to kinda explain to clients that you have to, there’s only so much I can do in 45 or 90 minutes. And sometimes it’s even shorter. It’s very difficult to change the world in 15 minutes. Maybe somebody can, but I, I try not to be that arrogant. But I also think I emphasize that sometimes it can be the tiniest thing I used to have this anecdote. I told about the brewers at Carlsberg.

Alf Rehn (18:08): I’ve worked with some of them and they’re one of their innovation managers. He told me this fantastic story, which had everything creativity, story needs an idea that was seen as really stupid, a young girl who wanted to fight for it. And, and final success is a great little story. I sort of retired it a few years back because I’ve felt I’ve done it too many times and I’ve been to this company and, and by about 18 months later, I get an email. And then there’s this young woman who email me and says, hi, you were speaking at the company. So, and so no recollection, by the way, I had no idea I’d been there, but so, but yeah, I said, I looked back at my calendar. Yeah, I’d been there. And you gave a speech. I didn’t remember anything of the speech, except that you talk, tell this story about these brewers at Carlsberg. And I wanted to thank you for that. Because today I got so angry in a meeting that I shouted at my bosses, that they were behaving just like brewers at Carlsberg. And now I get to do my pilot project. So thank you for that.

Maria Franzoni (19:08): Wonderful.

Alf Rehn (19:09): The reason I love that this, she didn’t remember anything. She just remembered a little story I told, but she could use it for something. And clearly other people remembered as well because her bosses had gotten embarrassed. And I think that’s in a sense, what I love about speaking that sometimes it can be that tiniest of things. I don’t go around imagining that everyone member arises my keynotes or took such extensive notes and go back to them every month or anything like that. I just want to give people a new way of, of using a word a notion of paying attention to something they otherwise would pay attention to, or just sometimes an anecdote like the brewers that cause because in at least in one company, that’s now a concept. That’s now a notion. That’s now something they can use productively.

Maria Franzoni (20:00): I love that. That’s brilliant. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. So you do more than just speaking because you do want to help organizations change and actually you work with both tops and fortune five hundreds on their innovation, creativity. That must be completely different work. Tell me about how you work with the two

Alf Rehn (20:21): In startups. It’s normally, so that I’ve gone in, in a sort of advisor role normally working very close to one or two people in the organization. I work with the, is startup in the distillery business which had five really, really fun. Co-Founders none of them knew, really knew anything about starting a company or having a distillery, but they were young and eager to gonna do this. And I became sort of a the mentor to their chief marketing officer and, and worked with him on a, how can we kind of make, create the kind of really creative, innovative marketing that could make a small kind of distillery stand out so often it’s that kind of thing more, it’s often more, it’s more directly towards one person, one problem in startups, in big corporations a single person can never do anything, not even the CEO, which is scary to most CEOs when they realize they have less power than they thought they did.

Alf Rehn (21:24): There it’s of, I often see myself as well. I don’t really like the term facilitator. I think it sounds a bit odd. I often work as a connector, so I kind of walk between departments and talk to different people and say, oh you do know that they’re doing the same thing you are doing there. So maybe you two should have a meeting and a coffee and a chat over this, or I kind of help kind of build the kind of cross-functional teams that can start start kind of doing new novel kinds of work. So I’m currently working with a, a very large global company definitely into the fortune 500, even though it’s not even stock on the stock exchange where we work a lot on their innovation architecture. That is how do you create a unified processes and unified languages across many companies because it’s sort of a cluster organization.

Alf Rehn (22:20): And and it is more challenging often than working with startups. You, you can get more frustrated than working with startups but it’s when it, when you can take people often ask what’s more innovative, the small and nimble organization, or the big Goliath. And I say, well, of course, I’m expected to say the small nimble ones, and they can often be the disruptors, but when you take the resources, I, of the manpower and the competencies of large corporation and actually manage to focus them, then real magic can happen. And, and that’s quite a beautiful thing to see.

Maria Franzoni (23:00): Fantastic. And how long typically would you work with an organization? You know, a big corporate to do something like that?

Alf Rehn (23:08): A big corporate will, it’s normally a, a year after three years. I try not to take on any tasks that are longer than that, because then it’s complacency often sets in. You need to, as we talked about earlier, kind of have a sense of urgency. So so I try to almost fire myself if I’ve been with a corporation for too long. But but you need to kind of also emphasize that you can’t create anything in a month month is, is for a big corporation, is, is too little to really kind of even set the wheels in motion. So you need to have a, a tolerance and acceptance for the, kind of the different timescales of innovation as well. And also, I mean, if you think about it, it’s very different creating a new kind of well soda or a new kind of cookie or to completely revamp the way we create a car, for instance. So we need to be kind of understanding how innovation actually works at different time scales. It took us a long time to invent email and email’s been around for about 50 years and we still don’t know how to use it properly. So we need to kind of accept sometimes the slowness of innovation as well.

Maria Franzoni (24:22): Yeah, I know. Absolutely. And I’m love again because I’ve got a computer and I don’t know how to use half of it, half of the things on my computer and, you know, over the pandemic, we’ve been adding so many bits of software and bits of technology. And, and so I’ve got all the gear and no idea, as I like to say anyway, listen, we’ve rapidly come outta the end of our time together, which has been fantastic. I’ve had such fun. I’ve really enjoyed it. What thought would you like to leave our listeners with, with regards to innovation and creativity?

Alf Rehn (24:53): Well I, I want to leave an on almost a somber point which, which might seem strange since we’ve had a very fun time here, but there is a, a factoid. You might say that I, that I bring out in the, in my book, innovation for the fatigue and this it’s the following people I realized at one point, I didn’t know how much we money. We spent as a global society on innovation. So we spent some time trying to figure it out. And the sum I came to, which is using O E C D data and their kind of algorithms for it. I came to a figure that it’s a minimum, an absolute minimum, and I can argue for far, far higher number, but the absolute minimums, 3000 billion, us dollars, 3000 billion us dollars. And as a Nordic I can tell you that is what happens if you combine the, the gross national product of Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Iceland, combined those, and take it that times two, that’s how much money, 3000 billion us dollars, enormous amount of money.

Alf Rehn (26:01): The other factoid is the following. And that is the very somber one this year, as well, more than 700,700,000 children will die of diarrhea, a, an illness. We know exactly how to, how to cure, how to we should have conquered it ages ago. And these two figures next to each other raises to me the most important question of innovation. We have the money, we have an enormous amount of resources. We have the knowledge, we all carry super computers in our pockets for God’s sake. We have, as we’ve seen as a global society, the power to solve tremendously big problems, will we, after the pandemic start solving the real problems, the important problems and, and that is a discussion I think we need to have, we need to decide innovation. Yeah, fine, but innovation, where, for whom, for what, that’s the key issue for our time,

Maria Franzoni (27:00): Innovation, where, for whom, for what that is such a good message to leave us on a thank you so much. I’m glad you’ve enjoyed yourself. And thank you for sharing so much wisdom.

Alf Rehn (27:12): Thank you. It’s been delight.

Maria Franzoni (27:14): Wonderful. So thank you for listening to The Speaker Show. If you enjoy this episode, please leave a rating on apple podcasts. You can keep up with future episodes on this speakers associates website, which is or your favorite podcast app. Make sure you order a copy of Alf’s book Innovation for the Fatigued, and be sure to contact speakers associates in plenty of time to book him for your next event. I will see you next week, byebye for now.

Live interview

Maria Franzoni is an established and recognised speaking industry expert and one of the most experienced speaker bookers in Europe.

As well as working with speakers, Maria also hosts live shows and podcasts. She currently hosts The Speaker Show podcast for Speakers Associates.

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