Interview with an Innovator: Kathy Button Bell on Creating Whole-Brain Innovation Teams


March 5, 2020

In one of the episodes of the U.S. version of the comedy series The Office, Michael Scott rushes into the scene demanding everyone give him ideas. As the narcissistic regional manager of the Scranton branch of Dunder Mifflin paper company, he’s looking to make his mark.

On his way into the building that day, Michael saw wet cement in front of the building. He magnifies the situations, telling his employees that one of his lifelong dreams is to leave a legacy in cement. Time’s of the essence, he insists, the cement’s drying. He needs ideas, lots of them – and good ones – about what imprint to leave that uniquely and memorable represents him.

Employees throw out ideas, all of which he mocks and demands better. One suggests Michael draw something. “It says more than words,” before Michael cuts him off with “Nooooo…NNNNNOOOOO! Give me something good.”

Then someone says he should leave his handprints in the cement like celebrities do outside the Chinese Theater in Los Angeles.

That peaks Michael’s interest…”I love it!”

Then, the office prankster, throws out the most radical idea – a real celebrity would leave an imprint of his face in the cement. This works beautifully because not only is it a unique idea, it strokes Michael’s outrageous ego.

In the next scene, Michael has a straw taped to his face, presumably to allow him to breathe, plastic wrap covers his hair, and his toady Dwight applies Vaseline to Michael’s face, so the cement doesn’t stick to it.

Michael leans forward as Dwight applies pressure to the back of his head to make a good imprint into the wet cement. After a few seconds, Dwight needs help to get Michael’s face out, and the group lends a hand.

At the end of the scene we see Michael’s faceprint in the cement – an unrecognizable pit at the intersection of four squares in the sidewalk. Yet another failed attempt for Michael to leave a brilliant legacy.

What Michael put his employees through is the same experience that you’ve been put through a thousand times – a boss or a client has a deadline and demands brilliant ideas on a moment’s notice. As idea after idea is thrown out, they’re rejected. Deep down, people decide to keep their mouth shut next time, they resent the person in charge, trust tanks, and egos drive decision making. A voice of reason gets dismissed as too conservative, and the end result is ridiculous.

The battle for brilliance

Companies need ideas. A lot of ideas. You need them for strategic plans. For campaigns. For products. Services. Meeting themes. Growth strategies. Customer retention. The list is endless.

Team innovation is the backbone of every successful company. It’s what sets a business apart from the competition, and helps it grow and prosper. Getting your staff to think creatively isn’t always easy, though. In a survey by Robert Half, 35 percent of chief financial officers said the greatest roadblock to organizational breakthroughs is a lack of innovative ideas. Executives polled also cited excessive bureaucracy (24 percent) and being bogged down with daily tasks or putting out fires (20 percent) as other major barriers.

No one knows this better than Kathy Button Bell. As the CMO of Emerson, she heads corporate marketing for the Fortune 200 technology and engineering company that has $17.4 billion in sales and nearly 90,000 employees.

Kathy’s built her fair share of teams during her 20-year career at Emerson. She’s done an incredible job of taking a brand that was perceived as stodgy and cumbersome, and turning it into one that’s perceived as sexy and highly innovative.

Click to watch this episode of
Interview with an Innovator with Kathy Button Bell

She has a knack for understanding how to build whole-brained innovation teams – teams that blend the hard-core, will-it-work left with the possibility-thinking right. Kathy understands that to be successful, you need people with completely different personalities on a team. An orchestrated group with different talents than hers, and then understand how to balance them.

“As a large engineering firm, we are super-good at regression analysis, any kind of quantitative analysis and project management. We’re not as good on the artistic side of things. So being a Psychologist or a Culture Shaper is a little harder job as we try to bring empathy to the party. The number one thing I do is bring those people into the innovative process and bring them in really early.”

That’s anti-thinking for most leaders. They want to get the ball rolling and then bring ‘the creatives’ in during the final stage to dress things up. It also means keeping them out of the mix for as long as possible, so they don’t mess things up.

But that hurts the quality of the outcome of the work you do as a team.

“You may not need 100% of what a creative person brings you, but I’ll bet most of the time you need a big percentage of it,” she points out. “You have a Strategist on a power play with what they think. You’ve got a Provocateur with their opinion. You need either an Orchestrator or a Collaborator to balance the conversation and get enough of the good ideas through.”

While we think of the strategic or provocative thinkers as the successful leaders in innovation, Kathy’s experience has been quite different.

“I look at people in my organization over the years, and it’s the Collaborators who have made some of the greatest things happen.”

While Kathy deeply values innovative thinking on her team and within her organization, she admits it’s not easy to have.

“Finding consistency of talent in creativity is difficult. It’s a talent, and it’s not something you can teach anyone. All of the awards I’ve received, the promotions I’ve had, I can contribute to my senior most creative person. Marcia Iacobucci at DDB is a strategic thinker, but she’s first and primarily the one who thinks up the unexpected, who makes you do that in a familiar area, she knows how much to scare you and how much to push and protect you. I’d say she 80% scares me and 20% protects me. The greatest thing you can find as a marketing person is a creative person to put you out on the edge, and then a reasonable way to pull them back.”

Click to watch my whole interview with Kathy and learn –
– The difference between a ‘new’ story and a ‘next’ story
– Why tension is the perfect time to usher in change
– The purpose behind her “Just Do Me” t-shirt when she meets with agencies

About Carla

Carla Johnson Innovation Creativity Speaker Author

Carla Johnson helps leaders who are often paralyzed by traditional thinking. They suffer from slow growth, an eroding competitive advantage, low employee engagement, and depleted investor confidence. Their teams lack purpose and progress and constantly battle a resistance to change and new ideas.

As the world’s leading innovation architect, Carla’s spent 20 years helping leaders shatter limits and discover undiscovered possibilities. Through years of research, she’s developed a simple, scalable 5-step process that teaches people how to consistently produce inspired ideas that lead to uncommon outcomes.