175. Curt Carlson: Value Creation as a Life Skill
Curt Carlson has devoted his life to value creation and innovation — VC&I as he sometimes characterizes it. He has been CEO of SRI, a “pure innovation” company where the business model was to create important new innovations that positively impacted the lives of many people. Examples of his innovations are Siri (ultimately sold to Apple) and HDTV (the technology that enables the streaming so many people enjoy today).
He started a consulting company called Practice Of Innovation, which established methods of innovation available to everyone and every firm. Now he teaches at University, aiming to develop a new generation of innovators.
He talks to Economics For Business (econ4business.com) about value creation and innovation as a life skill.
Key Takeaways and Actionable Insights
Value Creation is a complex adaptive system.
Value creation is a system of many agents, components, arrangements, technologies, constraints, and unpredictable emergent outcomes. There are a challenging number of variables, and there’s a requirement for highly integrated collaboration and recursive and iterative process, utilizing adaptive feedback loops and continuous readjustment. It’s hard — and quite rare — to get right and easy to get wrong.
The essential element of value creation is the mental model.
The mental model for value creation is solving important and meaningful problems for others. It shouldn’t be about launching a new business or a new technology, but about helping others. And, since people don’t think in terms of “I have a problem to solve,” the value creator must also understand the customer’s mental model. They experience dissatisfactions. They wish things could be better. They make trade-offs. They can’t always articulate what they want. They have to learn what to want, and value creators can help them to understand what they can want in the future.
Mental models are fundamentally important to the creation of value. We all have mental models of the way we’d like the world to work. The value creator is able to identify — “get inside” — others’ mental models and see the world the way others see it. This perspective is vital — the critical first step in the value creation process.
The calculus of value is subjective.
Value can only be defined by the individual who experiences it. Individuals make a mental calculation of value – it might include some numbers and some thoughts, feelings, preferences, and ideas. They are able to make this calculation in their own mind, even though the potential costs and benefits lay in the future.
The dimensions of value are many. When evaluating the purchase of a car, for instance, the price is part of the calculation, but so is the appearance and pride of ownership, the comfort, the gas mileage, the color of the seats, the cost of maintenance, and many, many more features and attributes and functional and emotional benefits.
Despite the difficulty and complexity, people are agile and adept at making this complex calculation. Value creators must be able to appreciate how customers make the subjective calculation — the calculus of value.
The removal of barriers to the experience of value is a good way to create it.
Convenience is often highly valued by customers. It represents the removal of barriers to value – easier to operate, less time taken, less physical or mental effort required. These are all valuable. The iPhone provided a more convenient way to enter data (responsive touch screen versus traditional keypad), and this played a big part in its adoption and success. The mental model is that people want to do things that are easy to do. They don’t want the clumsiness of a tiny keyboard on a phone. They don’t want to read a 20-page user guide for a new piece of software. They don’t want packages that are difficult to open or retail stores that are crowded and hard to shop. Identifying and understanding mental models like these gives skilled value creators their competitive advantage. If barriers are perceived negatively by customers, then create value for them by getting rid of barriers.
A need is not a problem to be solved. A need is a mental model. Reframing is the tool for understanding.
Curt uses the example of the slow elevator in a prestigious office tower. Residents complain. Engineers might try to solve the problem by re-engineering the elevator for greater speed. A value creator would try to identify the mental model of the complainers. That’s reframing. They are annoyed because they feel that their valuable time is being wasted; they’re bored for a few seconds. Understanding this mental model opens up the possibility for new value approaches. Add a digital screen in the elevator with a news feed so that people can use the time to catch up on the latest headlines. Or add a mirror so that they can use the time to check their clothes and hair before going into the meeting.
Most value creation challenges can be better addressed through reframing. In fact, Curt describes his innovation method as “relentless reframing”. The art of value creation is teasing out the customer’s mental model. Do it again and again, back and forth between the value creator and the customer, to get the understanding of the customer’s mental model right.
Value creation is coupled with innovation: VC&I.
The definition of innovation is not just the new idea or new product or new service. It’s the sustainability of any new solution once it’s delivered into the marketplace. Customers use it and prefer it, they pay enough for it to sustain the financial business model, they repeat their purchases and provide supportive comments and assessments. To be truly sustainable, the innovation must appeal to a lot of people, not just a few early adopters. The benefits must be greater than the costs to the user, based initially on their value calculus, and subsequently on their actual experience. And the offering must be better than competition. To get customers to change from a competitive offering, Curt says the degree of superiority must be 2X to 10X.
Curt uses the N-A-B-C process tool as a methodology for innovation teams.
On previous visits to the Economics For Business podcast, Curt has laid out the framework of his N-A-B-C model and how to use it. See our E4B graphic tool (Mises.org/E4B_175_PDF) and the Key Takeaways summary from the podcast #37 (Mises.org/E4E_37).
N = Need: Identifying and understanding the customer’s mental model, and perceiving the world as they perceive it, getting to their perspective of how the world can be improved. This is where relentless reframing applies.
A = Approach: Designing an innovative solution with a sustainable business model. The temptation is always to jump straight to the approach without truly understanding the Need, according to Curt. This always leads to error and requires a pivot.
B>C = Benefits Per Costs: This is the customer’s value calculus, very hard to get right as a result of its multi-dimensionality and combination of qualitative and quantitative measures.
C = Competition: What are the alternatives among which customers are choosing, whether direct or indirect – remembering that not buying anything is an alternative they’ll consider. Overcoming inertia requires a high degree of superiority.
Our econ4business.com toolkit (Mises.org/E4B_175_PDF) includes a full explanation of how to apply this tool.
Value Creation and Innovation is a life skill that can be taught to everyone.
Solving others’ problems is a deeply human activity. We’re all wired to do it for each other, every day. Value creation can be taught to kids of any age in school, and it can become a life skill. It can be taught to people studying any discipline in universities and colleges, from humanities to hard sciences, so that they can apply it in their field. It can be taught in every firm, whatever the line of business.
The resultant life skill is the mental model that life is about solving meaningful problems for others. It’s about understanding and appreciating others’ mental models. Reframing is the tool for gaining this understanding. Value creation is a fundamental capacity for everyone. They can make an impact on society by solving problems that matter.
“N-A-B-C Innovation Process” (PDF): Mises.org/E4B_175_PDF
Curt Carlson on Innovation Champions: Mises.org/E4E_91
“Answering the Million Dollar Question (Part 1)—How Value Creation Forums Help Create Winning Research Proposals”: Mises.org/E4B_175_Article