“You Can’t Analyze your Way to the Future,” Saul Kaplan reveals the Three Superpowers of Transformation

On June 10, 2021, Saul Kaplan sat down with a group of UnConferencers to share his seasoned  and personal perspective on what it really takes to transform a business in this time when transformation is imperative.

Like many of us, Saul comes from a traditional disciplinary background — as a scientist and as a business person, he deeply appreciated analysis as a tool, and used it to great success as an executive and as a consultant.  But that success was limited to improvements.  What could open up transformative possibilities?  While serving as director of Economic Development for the state of Rhode Island, Saul was exposed to the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and that changed everything.  Designers focus on what human beings need.  They prototype and test in the real world, and they tell stories. 

Saul draws two related distinctions:

*Sharetaking vs. Market-making


*Analytic vs Generative

Analysis is a powerful tool for share-taking.  If your goal is to take and protect market share with basically the technology you have, you’re operating in today’s world, your assumptions can be fairly well counted-upon, and the next steps are amenable to math.  

If you’re looking for true, generative transformation, analysis is not going to take you there.  You don’t know where the endpoint is, there are no useful assumptions about a future you haven’t yet built, and analysis simply can not be the answer.  

Can it be done?


Prozac completely transformed how we treat mental illness (Saul’s job at Eli Lilly as a young manager was to bring Prozac to the world)

Amazon used the same technology everyone else had to transform how we buy things (everyone else was busy using those technologies to protect market share in the old paradigm.

Apple sold products that were not so great, in service of a transformative business model, and fixed its products later. 

How to make transformative innovation happen at your company:  

  1.  If you’re the CEO, understand that the half-life of the business model has changed — you will see 2-3 completely different business models in your career. Step one is to be clear about what you want.  What do you _really_ mean by innovation?  Are you serious about transformation?  And step two is to create the right conditions. If you’re looking for transformative innovation, you need an ambidextrous organization with additional degrees of freedom and incentives tuned to the task. Assign the COO to manage the core business and focus on what’s next yourself!  
  2.  If you’re NOT the CEO, take a lesson from recent people-based movements that have had enormous impact.  Self-organized groups of consumers have changed the way that companies do business.  Self-organized groups of employees have voted with their feet on important company decisions.   What are you willing to do to have influence?
  • Use the superpowers!  

*Solve for the problems the customer actually has (distinct from delivering the thing you already make to a bigger market slice)

*Test in the real world, on a small scale (that applies to how you change your company as well!  Learn with a small pilot, build confidence, and then manage change)!

*Tell stories. Innovation is a messy process — allow the stories to be messy too.  That’s what invites input from employees and customers, and reveals your authentic intentions. If you’re still running all of your communications through 8 layers of approvals, you’re doing it wrong.  

What to read if you’ve already read everything there is to read about innovation

The Power of Pull, How Small Moves, Smartly Made, can Set Big Things in Motion, John Hagel, John Seely Brown, & Lang Davidson

The Journey Beyond Fear, John Hagel

Saul’s closing message for us:  

This is the innovator’s day!  Catalyze things bigger than any of us!


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