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Sean Pillot de Chenecey interviews Alf Rehn, author of ‘Innovation for the Fatigued’ and a recognised thought-leader on innovation and new-wave creative business management.

Alf is a Thinkers50 speaker and a highly influential professor at the University of Southern Denmark.

Enjoy as Alf regales us with tales of:

  • How he started his official speaking career
  • Speaking in North Korea
  • The way we overuse innovation
  • Alf’s book of the moment
  • The challenge of finding the ‘Nextfluencers’
  • His predictions for trends of the future

Episode #108

The challenge of finding the ‘Nextfluencers’

Sean Pillot de Chenecey (00:04): Hello, this podcast is care of Speakers Associates, the global speaker bureau representing a select group of the world’s finest thinkers and thought leaders. Founded in 1999, today’s Speakers Associates operate out of nine offices across seven countries covering the UK, Europe and Middle East. I’m Sean Pillot de Chenecey, author of the Post-Truth Business and Influencers and Revolutionaries. And in this series, I interview a range of fascinating individuals, proudly represented by the bureau. These change agents and industry experts give an update on their specialist areas of knowledge, and also on their motivations and viewpoints regarding the future of business. Today, I’m delighted to be joined by the incredibly charismatic and very, very well known speaker Alf Rehn, whose book innovation for the fatigued has quite rightly gained, amazing . So Alf

Alf Rehn (01:09): Lovely to be here. I’m not sure I, I deserve all these , but yes, I’ll take what I can have.

Sean Pillot de Chenecey (01:15): Well, I think anyone that I thought was fantastic when we were talking before that I know that you have the amazing sort of anecdote that you managed to warm up for both Al Gore and Arnold Schwarzenegger. So we had to start somewhere. So you’ve gotta tell us about that.

Alf Rehn (01:32): Well the, the Al Gore story was simply that I knew these two young guys, or actually I, I was called up by these two young guys. Never really done a major business event before, but they had big plans and they kind of call me and go, Hey, listen, we really like you as a speaker, we’ve seen you, we want to build this best event ever. And we have Al Gore as the headline, and they really were kind of setting this and begging this up. And it wasn’t a place where you would never kind of think you’ll have a business event, U vascular, which will mean very little to almost anyone it’s in Finland for those of you interested. And they kind of sell me in this and I, I listen and nod along and think, oh, that’s nice. Yeah, big event, always funny. And then they kind of come to the actual point, so we really want you, but we spent every dime we had on getting Al Gore and I’m going okay,

Alf Rehn (02:19): So we’re trying to get you to come for free. And I’m just laughing at them going, well, you certainly have what the Mexicans would call horns. And, and I like that in an entrepreneur. So we, we kind of dug, went back and forth in a little. And, and then, because I really like them. I said, listen, I like you. I want to support this, this, this looks like a good thing. It wasn’t sustainability as well. So I said, I will come, but I have some conditions. And one of them is I warm up for Al Gore. I I’m the guy before Al Gore, because then at least I can explain to, to the people who ask why I go somewhere and say, I’m warming up for Al Gore. How many people can say that? Yeah. And as for Arnold Schwarzenegger, it was simply I was asked to do a panel, a panel of young entrepreneurs. I’m not a huge fan of panel discussions. But when it kind of then transpired that this panel would be warming up for Arnold Schwarzenegger, again, kind of my, I’m not a huge Arny fan, but but I do appreciate the man and see him as a superstar. So I thought, well, it’s a story. So why not? I will kind of chair this panel just to be able to say, I’ve warmed up for Arny, my son was most impressed.

Sean Pillot de Chenecey (03:31): I can I’m sure. And, and how old was he then when you did that?

Alf Rehn (03:36): He was 19 years old. And actually because he’d hung around with me and the security team gotten used to him. He even managed to get a selfie with Arny.

Sean Pillot de Chenecey (03:45): Well, in that case, one, one can sort of do something that gains your children’s admiration. Fantastic.

Alf Rehn (03:52): Absolutely! Worth more than money.

Sean Pillot de Chenecey (03:54): Tell me something that I know that you are not an admirer of is, or the overblown and overused term innovation in the way that it’s generally referred to by the world of business. So perhaps just tell the listeners about why it is that you don’t like the way that most people use the term and how you use it.

Alf Rehn (04:14): Well, it, it comes from the fact I’m, I’ve been an innovation researcher for quite a long time now. I don’t wanna say how many years, because it makes me sound awful old. And I do love creativity and innovation. They are my passions. They’re the things that really kind of get me going and so on. But I started to realize that whenever I kind of popped down, kind of saw a new book out on innovation or saw some magazine article headlined with innovation, this or that occasionally, and more and more frequently, I got quite bored because it was the same stories, the same examples, the same companies. And, and as I started looking more at this at just how standardized the term had been and how overused had been, I started seeing a lot of really weird stuff. I realized that companies were kind of marketing stuff that barely would’ve been considered an improvement a decade ago was now suddenly a radical, disruptive, transformative innovation.

Alf Rehn (05:09): I’ve seen pencil sharpness, literally pencil sharpness marketed as a revolutionary innovations in sharpening technology. And at some point I just started to make fun of this kind of I had this little tagline thanks, innovation when I did stuff on social media, when I put out the silliest innovation, and then after a while I started getting really angry. So just yesterday I read that a company I’ve been talking about at some point laundroid, which was trying to build a $16,000 robot only for folding laundry had gone bankrupt. And now some might say, well good, but the scary stuff was that startup had gotten 80 million worth of funding. Somebody had thought that it was worth 80 million to invest in laundry folding technology. when, and I always kind of repeat this statistic. Even this year, more than 700,000 children will die of diarrhea, a single preventable disease.

Alf Rehn (06:14): So I’m not against innovation. I’m more, I would say an innovation provocateur in that I want to provoke a better debate about innovation, what we invest into innovation, where we put our money. Mm. And I’m thrill to see now that with the sustainability debate, we’re starting to get there. We’re getting kind of, if you want to say, you’re an innovator, you have to at least answer, okay, but will this help with sustainability? Mm-Hmm so, so we are getting better at it, but there’s still lots of really silly products that are getting funded, getting top designers and engineers working on them when there are so many other more important problems to solve.

Sean Pillot de Chenecey (06:53): Mm mm.

Alf Rehn (06:54): And I see this in companies as well. I mean, and, and what I wrote innovation for the fatigue, it was because I realized that with this overuse and, and with this frankly, frankly, sloppy discourse around it, when I started working in companies with and said, hi, I’m here to work on your innovation initiative. People started looking bored and we’re kind of going, oh, no, not this again. Oh, one more innovation initiative, one more creativity workshop. Can’t we be left alone. And I realized if this is what’s happening in our companies, people no longer believing in innovation, people thinking creativity, or as you say, revolution in your book is getting boring. That is a very dangerous path to be down.

Sean Pillot de Chenecey (07:36): Mm. Very, very interesting. Perhaps just going back a bit on that one in terms of how you started, so, you know, what led you down this path?

Alf Rehn (07:48): Well, I’m, I’m an academic first and foremost. I mean, that’s, that’s how I use, I come from kind of boys and their books brigade in that I was very much a, a bookworm as a kid. I studied and got pretty good grades, became a doctoral student directly after business school and got my chair in management and organization at the very tender age of 31. And I, I thought I’d be kind of just an ivory tower, academic all my life, but getting your chair at that tender age meant I had kind of an existential crisis. I was kind of thinking about, okay, so is this all I’m gonna do for the coming 35 years? Is there nothing else out there? So I started kind of exploring various avenues interviewing CEOs and met up with some people in the speaking business, in the industry in more in general and, and started getting asked to, to do a little speech here, a little workshop there, a keynote there.

Alf Rehn (08:45): And then I, I started getting a couple of breaks. One time I was I was in actually jeans a ripped t-shirt and flip flops at an academic conference when a, an agent, a speaker’s agent calls me and kind of doesn’t even say, hello, just goes, can you be at the airport in 20 minutes? And the city I was in the airport was super close. I said, oh, yes, but, well, I’ve already booked your ticket. You, you are flying off. And I said what? And I said, this guy, top, top speaker this is the first time he’s ever had to pull out, but he has to pull out of his gig today. We need to have a replacement. You are closest to an airport. You’ll have to do it. And I go, well, yeah, I can. Sure. Yeah, I was promised his fee as well, which didn’t hurt but I pointed out I’m in flip flops in a ripped t-shirt, I’m not really stage ready. And I said, well, there are chops at the airport. Aren’t there go

Sean Pillot de Chenecey (09:48): .

Alf Rehn (09:49): And I thought, okay, this is sometimes kind of opportunity knocks. Yeah. I rush off to the airport, write a keynote on in the plane. Completely confused. Be at this point, I realized, I don’t even know who the client is. so, so I kind of put in a lot of markers of, okay, need to check this need to check that need to check this drew a bunch of questions, mail the questions to the agent. So actually no, not mailed, right text message. I’ll send it the moment I have signal, get kind of rush into a sand store. I even remember the brand get a suit rush out, not a well fitting suit, but I didn’t have time to fix that rush off to a waiting car and get swept into this big arena where I give this keynote and it went well. Hmm. Actually it went, went, I mean, I wouldn’t say spectacularly well, but the client is so impressed by being able to show that okay. Our promised headliners canceled, but we’re so good. We can fix somebody at a hour’s notice they were exaggerating just tad. Yeah. Yeah. And, and kind of fix the situations because we are problem solvers,

Sean Pillot de Chenecey (10:57): Ah, classic.

Alf Rehn (10:57): So everyone loved me. The client was deliriously happy that they could kind of show themselves as these kind of super problem solvers who nothing phases them. So I kind of proved my bones in a sense. Yeah. Yeah. And after that I guess that having proven yourself meant you get the next job and you get the next job and you get the next job and that’s kind of how it started.

Sean Pillot de Chenecey (11:19): Fantastic. Apart from that, I mean, any other sort of recent talks you’ve given that have been interesting either in terms of location or perhaps the way the actual events have been run. And again, I think just as you saying, business books and innovation generally tend to be incredibly tedious. A lot of conferences are incredibly tedious. So anyone that you’ve been giving a keynote at that you thought, wow, that was really different and unusual. Or

Alf Rehn (11:48): There, there have been many unusual ones. There’ve been the kind of stage unusual ones where somebody puts up kind of a really kind of different kind of stage setting and, and really invests in that. But, but the ones that tend to stick to mind are the ones which can be relatively bare bones when it comes to setting, but where, where there just is that rapport with the audience or where the, the situation is such that you’re not just kind of mouthing the cliches, but realizing that you’re doing something really meaningful. So the solitary one, the, the single one that I, I will always, I think, remember the fondest is also the strangest one ever. And that is, I was probably the first westerner ever to be invited to give a keynote on innovation in North Korea now, and now this, you have to realize this is a country with eight allowed hairstyles .

Alf Rehn (12:40): So, so innovation is not really high on their agenda. And obviously I leapt at the possibility because who wouldn’t and I give it and you really have to be careful as well because you say the wrong thing. And I, I wasn’t scared my per, but my personal safety, I was scared about other people’s safety, because I had to be sure that I didn’t say something which got the wrong north Korean person to love the wrong place and so on. Doesn’t bear thinking of really. But it’s, I remember it so well, because it’s, the room was very bare bones. There was nothing particularly stylish or, or different excepting, some of the imagery, obviously. Yeah, yeah. And, and the context but it was the only keynote I’ve ever been given where I’ve been given instructions regarding who the spies were in the audience and who would report me where wow.

Alf Rehn (13:34): That kind of puts the bar quite high up. That’s fantastic. But Hey, we speakers have to be professional. So if you’re speaking in North Korea, obviously you need to have a speaker’s ethics, which means you will not say anything that you wouldn’t say elsewhere, but you also need to kind of play to context. So, so what I decided I’d do is I went and looked through the great current leaders and I say, great with some, some sarcasm here. Yeah, yeah. Kind of statements. And I found a couple of quotes, which were very innocuous but still definitely by him, such as our nation is built on the mental power of the young generation, stuff like that. Mm-Hmm and peppered those couple of those two or three into my speech and that alone got the political observers. So pleased that I’d shown that courtesy and, and show that I do did understand how the rules were in this specific country, that the rest of the people who were speaking at this event were left completely alone with no spice watching them. Wow. And I think that was a good thing because one of the final talks was given by my friend who decided this was a great moment to recreate Gordon Gekko’s greed is good speech you haven’t lived until you’ve seen a North Korean audience try to process greed is good from wall street.

Sean Pillot de Chenecey (14:58): fantastic. Wow. North Korea, that is a that certainly is as anecdotes about speeches and events go. I think that is right up there.

Alf Rehn (15:08): Wow. It’s as I said, it’s, it’s my it’s my to go story, but yeah, there have been many others. I think the, the, the stories we tell to kind of out it’s different from the stories we tell internally in the, in the business, because internally we of course kind of notice more. Oh, what gonna, can you tell me stories about when the projectors exploded or, or in you almost fell off stage or yeah. Yeah. When the arrangements were so bad, you got food poisoning and still had to give the speech. So, so we internally we tend to kind of gravitate to these mishap stories. But I think that they’re interesting mostly for, for people who are speakers and and the things that the interest clients tend to be. Okay. But how do you actually talk about things that are important, even though you may be in a very alien environment and north Korea’s alien, but likewise, if I’m kind of thrown into some kind of heavy industry, I know very little about there industrial context, also very alien mm-hmm I might be in, in Southern Germany. And I wouldn’t say that’s alien to me because I’ve been in Germany many, many times, but still it’s a different culture, different setting. Hmm. And we speakers need to be able to not be chameleons because we need to stick to our identity, but still be able to, to form ourselves and form our message so that the event and the keynote becomes as good as it possibly can be.

Sean Pillot de Chenecey (16:34): Mm-Hmm , you know, very true. Very true. What about your inspirations in terms of what you may have been reading recently or listening to, or watching? What sort of, what, what sparks your interest?

Alf Rehn (16:47): I have a very kind of regimented reading reading structure and routine regimented reading routine. That’s the tongue twister. I, so I, I go through a couple of hundred of headlines a day through a reader that kind of collects them from the strangest magazines and, and the usual newspaper and so on. I’m a big believer that you cannot just read the stuff in your own area that is if you’re creativity, researcher and only read books on creativity sooner or later to you will become incredibly noncreative. Hmm. So I spend a lot of time trying to find stuff that I know little about or, but I’m interested in, and, and I really try to kind of broaden my, my view and, and sometimes even actively look up stuff that I have no interest in mm-hmm . So the last book I read interestingly is was Elvis in Vegas an award-winning book about how Elvis made a comeback in Vegas.

Alf Rehn (17:46): Yeah. Yeah. And all the work that went into it and how Vegas transformed and, and you might say, but what has that got to do with innovation quite a lot, if you can read it with those glasses and those eyes that is Vegas was known for the rat pack, the swinging kind of sixties kind of fifties and sixties Frank Sinatra. And so on and along comes this guy from TULO who, who needs to reinvent his career. And, and how does he, how do you go about trading on your old stuff? The classics that everyone wants to, to hear, but still try to bring in some new stuff and, and to do that in a new setting. And I read that and kind of realized this is actually what a lot of companies go through that is companies can’t just throw away their golden oldies. Yeah. Yeah. If you, if you are a 3m, you need to keep doing post-it notes. You can’t, you can’t just say, no, sorry, we’ve disrupted ourselves. We’re no longer doing the stuff you actually like now we’re just gonna do new stuff. We don’t know if it will work, you need to do your classics. Mm. Yet you need continuously to find ways to bring in new material, new products, new services, and often to kind of create a new setting even for the classics.

Sean Pillot de Chenecey (19:02): Yeah. Yeah.

Alf Rehn (19:02): And I think if we look for instance, to just take a, a random example, how every burger chain is now trying to kind of reinvent themselves as vegetarian or flexitarian or vegan. Yeah. I think we’re seeing a lot of this and I think a lot of it’s good, that is it’s good that they’re realizing we can’t just sling bad beef for the rest of our lives. We need to kind of understand the trends. And it’s interesting to see how they succeed or, or not to various degrees. And I think that by looking at examples that seem very, unlike each other, Elvis and Vegas and burger chains, trying to, to go vegan, we can actually see how innovation act has these forms and figurations that repeat themselves over contexts. And to really see that we actually need to read lots and lots of different examples, even the strange and weird ones.

Sean Pillot de Chenecey (19:57): And that’s really, really interesting. And I mean, just taking that, you know, exact point about Elvis, the individual, I mean, a lot of people would say, you look back at it, the, the bluntly put the aging overweight, Elvis had such incredible pathos and character. He almost looked like a wounded sort of polar bear, but, but it was incredible the way he looked when he came back, whenever that was I’m guessing sort of late seventies, mid seventies or something. And then that idea of so many of those legacy brands realizing, I think that there’s a well known industry saying that, you know, brands have woken up to the fact that you, you can’t keep on making a business by making your customers fat and ill mm-hmm . Yeah, yeah, yeah. Hence we see things like, well, last year, veganism in the UK as fastest growing consumer trend, there was, I mean a transformation of, of the business environment.

Alf Rehn (20:52): Absolutely. And as a, as a kind of, sort of flexitarian myself, my partner is vegan. So, so I, I simply to, to simplify things at home, often eat vegan food. I, I think this is a good thing. And and it kind of shows that companies need to live in the now and need to kind of pay attention preferably a little before. Things become as big as veganism becomes now, because this is, I think, a key problem for many companies. It’s easy now to see that veganism, sustainability and so on are the big new things. I mean, every single magazine, every single Twitter feed, every single LinkedIn group is, is basically singing the same thing. But what’s the next thing. And this is always been what fascinates me? What is the kind of stuff that we today think is silly? Not kind of relevant, marginal even idiotic, which if we were to meet again in, let’s say 15 years, we both kind of go, oh, we should have seen that one coming because veganism, I mean, it’s been a long for quite a while.

Alf Rehn (21:58): It wasn’t like, it just suddenly appeared. The, the possibility of creating kind of vegan friend alternatives has existed far longer than people often realize. But now all of a sudden everyone’s kind of jumping on this kind of train. And I think what companies can be very careful about is not simply to jump on the train, but also to keep an eye out for the next one. And this is why I think it’s somewhat problematic that so many business events, for instance, focus around the same themes. Everyone needs to have a sustainability speaker, which is wonderful. It’s important. We should keep doing that, but we should also kind of think, okay, when we kind of have done that and, and have that covered, where do we find the weirdos, the odd, odd balls, the, the kind of next influencer next flus, you can, you can steal the term. I’m completely okay with this.

Sean Pillot de Chenecey (22:53): You heard it here first

Alf Rehn (22:55): First, next influencers. Put two guys like us in a room and we will think of one new term. We can’t help ourselves. And, and how do you, how do you do that? How do you kind of keep refreshing? How do you keep looking? How do you keep reading the magazines that currently a, a kid in Lagos thinks is the coolest ever, but no one else has ever heard of that’s, that’s our challenge. And I think that’s always gonna be our challenge.

Sean Pillot de Chenecey (23:22): Okay. So as you begin to finish off and we can naturally speak for our about this, but we’re trying to keep the, The Speaker Associates Show podcast, snappy half hour sort of bite size, bit of content as we here now, sort of early 20, 20, what’s what’s big on the horizon for you.

Alf Rehn (23:42): I think that a lot of the stuff that we’ve seen peak during the last years I think sustainability will go on as, as a big trend obviously, but I think that we will start to see it normalize. It will become just like social media had a big hype and then became normalized. I think sustainability is edging into normalization phase mm-hmm I think we may see a lowering of interest in artificial intelligence because AI is an important development, but people underestimate the difficulties in developing kind of the next level to kind of transcend the next step. The really exciting things. I think technologically lie in stuff like what happens when nanotechnology finally comes into its own. I think that there are things now happening that point to really, really exciting avenues there. I think, and since I live in a huge robotics cluster in Denmark, I think the normalization of robotics will be a bigger thing than we might see.

Alf Rehn (24:47): Everyone kind of thinks about robotics as Androids and, and kind of helpful gadgets around the house. The real thing is when, when we start seeing completely automated factories, completely automated warehouses and, and we are getting very close to that and that revolution will be big. And I think, and I have been talking about this for a decade now, aging, we’re still don’t talk enough about aging. And we are now coming to the point. It is a, not just a tipping point, something bigger and an inflection point mm. Where if we don’t start to take the elder, the elder generation seriously, as consumers, as innovators, as creators as entrepreneurs. And of course, as very interesting consumers then we, we really, aren’t doing our jobs as business thinkers and, and seniors. So, so those would be the kind of things that I’m, I’m kind of keeping the closest eye on right now.

Sean Pillot de Chenecey (25:47): Mm, absolutely fascinating. Okay. And then just as a last point then as a sort of a key takeout, what is it that you would really, really like to have the speakers associates array of global clients really think about? We all hate to be pigeonholed, but what would you really like them to think about when they’re thinking about you?

Alf Rehn (26:12): Oh, I’m not sure. I’m, I’m even comfortable. All of them thinking about me as vain as I am , but what I try to do and what I want to help companies to do is to realize that they have more innovation potential than they might see themselves. Very many companies are basically failing in utilizing their own innovation, capital, their innovation surplus by sticking to the script by not listening and include not having an inclusive innovation agenda, keeping everyone with the innovation discourse and so on. And, and I think that the happiest times I’ve had, and, and the most successful times I’ve had, has been when I’ve been able to, to help. And I emphasize the word help companies realize that there are so many other innovation dialogues, innovation discussions, innovation potentials that they only scrape the surface of what they can achieve in, in the market with what they already have

Sean Pillot de Chenecey (27:15): Nicely put so Alf Rehn, innovation expert, international speaker, highly successful author. Thank you.

Alf Rehn (27:24): Thank you very much.

Sean Pillot de Chenecey (27:30): Thank you for listening to The Speaker Show podcast. Please leave a rating on iTunes. We’d really appreciate it. And also it’d be great. If you could subscribe to the podcast itself, you’ll find it also on Google podcasts, SoundCloud, or your favorite podcast app. Thank you.

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Sean Pillot de Chenecey speaker

Sean Pillot de Chenecey

Foresight strategist, author and podcast host Sean Pillot de Chenecey is an inspirational speaker, who’s also consulted for some of the world’s biggest brands.

Sean has a very deep level of knowledge regarding the genuine issues impacting brands from a cultural, social and business perspective.

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