The Creatives: 7 Of MN’s Most Successful Innovators

The Creatives: 7 Of MN’s Most Successful Innovators

Seven of Minnesota’s most successful innovators share how they foster and lead creativity within their organizations.

This is not another story on innovation, as there already are plenty out there. No, this is an article about how to lead for innovation. There’s a difference. We didn’t go looking for the ponytailed kings of clever in this town. That’s for Ad Age. We went looking for their bosses—leaders who have developed processes that have resulted in innovative products and measurable results. Look at it this way: After the CEO, the person responsible for innovation is the most important in an organization. Without a consistent flow of new ideas, an organization will die, plain and simple.

And that’s true within every organization. So we went to Ecolab and asked to speak with the leaders of its labs. We went to General Mills and spoke to its top marketer. We went to Snow Kreilich and met with the top architects. We went to Hennepin County Medical Center for the head of public health innovation. And we went to Black retail branding and talked with the visionary founder. We asked each one simple question: How do you foster—and maintain—creativity?

Lead With Emotions: Mark Addicks, Chief Marketing Officer, General Mills

Mark Addicks
Chief Marketing Officer | General Mills

Brand innovation comes from forming emotional connections with consumers. The path to doing that? Talk to consumers.

General Mills Revenue
2014: $17.9 billion
2013: $17.8 billion
2012: $16.7 billion

Mark Addicks uses the word “love” a lot. Eighteen times in a one-hour interview. He really loves marketing. That much is obvious. Moreover, he really loves marketing that makes him love products. “I’m an emotional guy, and I like it when brands can form that connection,” he says with trademark ebullience. “I mean, I can do quantitative marketing analysis but I’m pretty average at it.”

Addicks’ work has been widely recognized for his innovation and marketing expertise. Advertising Age named him one of the top 100 marketers in 1999, and one of the top 25 power brokers in both 2003 and 2004. He joined General Mills in 1988, worked in marketing positions within the Big G cereal and Yoplait USA divisions, and served as vice president of Big G New Enterprises, where he led new product development efforts, including Frosted Cheerios. Addicks was named vice president of marketing communications in January 2000, and led the successful integration of the General Mills and Pillsbury marketing functions in 2001.

One of his mantras is this: Before a brand can mean a lot to a consumer, it has to mean a lot to the brand team. The team has to have bought in and be passionate, or the work it does will be mediocre.

General Mills is not short on marketing talent, and Addicks goes to great lengths to bring in curious people. He’ll ask random questions in interviews to find out how engaged applicants are with the world. One of his favorites is to ask interviewees whether they watch Spanish-language TV. “Some will say, ‘Well, no, I don’t speak Spanish.’ But guess what, I don’t own an Arctic Cat but I might have to market one.’”

But teams sometimes don’t click. In his experience teams are like families, and families don’t always get along. Addicks has seen a lot of Tolstoy behavior on his teams, and as a leader is quick to make adjustments.

“You look at the dynamics and see if you need to get them re-enrolled or change some of the members,” he says. “And sometimes you have to be willing to start over.

“One of the exercises we like is to ask team members to bring in five to 10 campaigns they like from outside the company and let’s talk about them. That works,” he says. “That way people don’t feel defensive or have an ulterior motive, since it’s not their work.”

After that, innovation comes from getting to know the consumer. There are plenty of new-media ways to do that these days, such as following various social media sites and tracking consumer preferences through data analytics. But there’s also just the act of observing the consumer in action. Addicks is a big fan of good old-fashioned shoe leather.

“Just go out and observe then come back and talk about what you saw and learned. Simple, right? That’s where you learn about who these consumers are and what they want.”

Innovation in Action: The Box-Top Reward System

Mark Addicks believes that a key ingredient to successful consumer marketing innovation is building in a rewards system.

Consumers like to feel they’ve earned something.

Take the company’s Box Tops for Education program. You cut out cereal box tops and send them in, and money goes to support local schools. It involves 40 million households, and Addicks understands its appeal.

“Through the years there have been people smarter than me, people from consulting groups like McKinsey, who say, ‘Why don’t you just take the program online and make it easier for the consumer?’ ” he says. “Because that would kill it. Why is the consumer cutting out the box top? They’re cutting them out and giving them to the kid, saying ‘Make sure you give them to the coordinator,’ all these steps. They’re demonstrating to their kids, ‘See, I’m trying to do something for you.’ You move that online, and the same reward isn’t there.”

Failure Is an Option: Carter SIlvernail and Tony Erickson, Scientists, Ecolab

Carter SIlvernail and Tony Erickson
Scientists | Ecolab

Ecolab has more than 1,600 scientists on its payroll, who often report unsuccessful results. But one person’s failure could be another’s breakthrough.

Ecolab Revenue
2013: $13.8 billion
2012: $11.8 billion
2011: $6.8 billion

Tony Erickson, principal chemist at Ecolab, is never worried about finding ideas. At Ecolab, which employs more than 1,600 scientists, ideas float in the air. But realizing ideas is another matter. New science doesn’t just happen overnight. It’s a long, painstaking endeavor to get to innovation. So when he needs inspiration he makes sure he attends the company’s monthly tech forum. That’s where speakers from throughout the company, and sometimes outside the company, present their work.

“We have relationships with a lot of the key universities, and with subject-matter experts that affect us,” he says. “There was this time where I was working on a project to reduce bacterial spores in our products, so the company bought in Dr. Peter Setlow, who’s one of the world’s leading scientists on spore reduction. He shared his thinking, and that was very helpful.”

The product that resulted is Exelerate HS, a low-spore dairy powder. It is based on the company’s Surface Energy Enhance Cleaning technology, a process in which chemical energy is stored in hydrogen peroxide and converted to mechanical energy in the form of bubbles and turbulence.

“With Exelerate, we found the problem, looked for solutions, came up with what we were going to try, and it was successful,” Erickson says. Having access to thinkers such as Setlow helped along the way. “The cool thing is that product is being driven by the growth of the middle class in Asia, who want more protein, dairy protein, so we’re improving food protein in China.”

One of the other mandates for Ecolab scientists is to find solutions that have multiple applications. To start with, they look at problems from myriad vantage points. Being global helps.

“We look to Europe and Asia, areas all over the globe, for new concepts, because they have different customer problems than we have in North America, and a lot of times we can use their applications to solve a similar problem,” says Carter Silvernail, a senior scientist at Ecolab. “We’re constantly working on new projects and talking to each other.”

Of course, Silvernail and Erickson hope every experiment results in a new product that makes it to market. But even if the project doesn’t pan out, the company still often wins.

“I love going to someone else’s presentation where they’re discussing the bad results in their experiments,” Erickson says. “They’ll say, ‘This didn’t do what we wanted,’ but I’ll be thinking, ‘Hmmm, maybe it can be used for something else.’ That’s sort of the area I’m in. I’m very much in the mad scientist, ‘Fail often, fail early’ side of things.”

Silvernail similarly enjoys the long-range utility his work can potentially provide.

“Around here you don’t have to go back to phase zero every time. If you can take something you developed off the shelf, what we call a failure, and use it for another application, that’s a win for us,” he says. “A lot of times we’ll use technologies that were developed 10, 15 years ago.”

Silvernail recently hit a home run with a project that removes phosphate from Ecolab products.

“In the United States we had to remove phosphates from our solid and liquid warewashing formulations due to environmental regulations. The major concern with phosphates is that they can promote algae growth in natural waters, such as lakes, rivers and streams. We developed new technologies for our warewashing products to meet these regulations. That took about five years,” he says. “It was a big challenge because phosphates play a role in many aspects of cleaning for customers. We had to come up with many different technologies to offset the performance benefits of phosphates.”

Ecolab on a Buying and Innovating Spree

  • In March 2011, the company purchased the assets of O.R. Solutions, Inc.
  • In December 2011, it merged with Nalco Holding Co. of Naperville, Ill.
  • In December 2011, the company acquired the Inset Center pest elimination business in Brazil.
  • Ranked 33rd out of 100 companies on the Forbes list of 100 of the world’s most innovative companies in 2013.
  • Ecolab employs more than 1,600 scientists, who work within a global network of 16 R&D facilities and focus on water chemistry, antimicrobial science, oil and gas process technology, and automation and dispensing solutions.
  • In 2013 the company invested $188 million in research and development; in 2012 it did $183 million.

The Influencer: Pam Clifford, Director, Center for HealthCare Innovation at Hennepin County Medical Center

Pam Clifford
Director | Center for HealthCare Innovation
Hennepin County Medical Center

Pam Clifford has spent her career bringing stakeholders together. One of her secrets to breaking through resistance: head straight to the top.

Pam Clifford’s position as director of the Center for Healthcare Innovation at HCMC was born out of crisis. It started in 2009, when state funds for Medicaid—known in Minnesota as General Assistance Medical Care (GAMC)—were reduced, and many low-income people, who often presented with mental illness or addiction issues, started swamping the county’s ER system, since HCMC was one of just four systems to stay open to them.

The challenge: How could the county offer smarter care to high utilizers of expensive services, which would result in better public health and help save taxpayer dollars?

The irrepressible, fast-talking Clifford raised her hand to drive the county toward systemic changes, which led to her new position in 2012.

What came first was the creation of the coordinate care delivery model. The model follows patients who often suffer from myriad problems—from unemployment to addiction to mental illness—through an integrated program.

“Back in 2010 we thought, ‘How are we going to deliver care differently to the high-utilizer population?’ That became the coordinated care model; as our medical director, Dr. Paul Johnson, says, it’s provider skinny and care-coordination rich,” she says. “It has physicians, but also a [physician assistant] and a nurse practitioner, as well as two social workers, registered nurse clinical coordinators, a licensed alcohol and drug counselor, a psychologist, as well as a licensed practical nurse and front desk person. The thought is to stay in touch with these people instead of working with them in 15-minute visits.”

It was innovative in its commitment to using more up-front resources to save back-end dollars. The data started to show the number of hospital visits dropping, and patients were feeling well served; in 2011, after much of the GAMC funding was restored, the county decided to expand the program even further. A nudge from former senator Dave Durenberger proved the catalyst.

“The story is that he went to the county commissioners and said, ‘With the Affordable Care Act coming, and new ideas around accountability in care organizations, you have all the elements for reform here. You have a health plan, which is the metropolitan health plan, you’ve got a hospital and clinic system, HCMC, you’ve got the public health departments and social services of the counties. Think about doing it for the Medicaid population’—which is a new approach, as so much of the accountable care organizations are focused on the Medicare population,” she says in admiration.

The commissioners were sold and approved a plan for what would become Hennepin Health. Clifford took the leadership role.

“At the time I said to our COO, it’s not a ton of patients, but it’s the perfect pilot for us in terms of working with these folks in ways that we can learn from and then spread to others in our organization,” she says. “Our mission is serve the 5 percent who use 64 percent of medical resources.”

The role has her out in the community talking to health care consumers about their needs, and how the county can respond to them. “We went out to an adult correction facility in Plymouth and looked at how [we could] coordinate care when people get out. When they go to jail, they lose their insurance. When they’re discharged they get seven to 30 days of insurance, then they’re on their own, and they fall into the cycle of using the emergency department. How do we develop a plan to prevent this from happening?”

It’s a complex task, involving many service providers. Clifford views herself as the connector, the go-between for, say, Hennepin County administrators and HCMC. “I have no authority, all I have is influence. It’s who I know, who I can network with, who I can put together, and then helping to address barriers.”

Breaking down barriers is one of her core skills. She has met with institutional resistance to innovation, and she’s learned when that happens to go right up the ladder and get an explanation.

Thanks in part to her work, the data show that Hennepin Health clients are using the ER less often (see chart), and money is being saved on care. The reforms are working, and Clifford has ideas for more coordinated care programs for specific patient groups, including those with ALS. But to get there she has to use her influence.

“Often my job comes down to helping people in the executive roles—VP and above—understand what our purpose is and what we’re trying to accomplish,” she says. “If we can do that we feel we can garner their support.

HCMC Awards for Innovation

  • HCMC’s Whittier Clinic recognized for holistic health design in 2014 by Urban Land Institute’s magazine, one of 10 health care facilities worldwide listed.
  • Coordinated Care Center selected for 2013 National Association of Public Hospitals Gage Award for population health improvement. The program came out of a study showing that 3 percent of HCMC’s patients represented 50 percent of its costs. After one year, the rate of emergency department visits dropped by 37 percent, inpatient stays by 25 percent.
  • Five HCMC specialties—diabetes and endocrinology, gastroenterology and GI surgery, nephrology, pulmonology, and urology—cited as “high performing” by U.S. News & World Report in 2013-14 America’s Best Hospitals publication.

Seeking Inspiration All the Way Through a Project: Julie Snow and Matt Kreilich, Architects, Snow Kreilich

Julie Snow and Matt Kreilich
Architects | Snow Kreilich

These visual innovators invite their project partners to keep the creativity coming, from sketch to shovels in the ground.

Julie Snow and Matt Kreilich have known each other for 20 years—Snow was Kreilich’s architecture professor at the University of Minnesota—and have worked together for 10. They’ve found innovation in the most unlikely places together. But they weren’t sure what to do at first with Delta Air Lines’ restrooms.

“We were asked to reinvent what an airport restroom can be—what a unique challenge!” says Snow. “A lot of our innovation comes from looking at questions and stepping back and really considering options. Then we do research. Many decades ago we had worked with HealthPartners to imagine the ideal health clinic. So we took what we learned in that process and started from square one. What makes a bathroom clean? We went to Mayo Clinic, we went to Ecolab, we interviewed experts, we make sure to understand the context of the project. And then we start to pull together a team.”

Their work with Delta is ongoing, so plans are still under wraps, but for Snow and Kreilich a big part of the appeal is the challenge. They have found many from another surprising source: the federal government.

“We’ve been doing a lot of work for the General Services Administration, which is a federal agency and which you wouldn’t think of as a hub of innovation,” says the bushy-haired Kreilich. “But they’re incredibly innovative in the way they procure architecture services. They say: How are you going to make this great? To start there is incredible, and they ask you to sustain the creative energy all the way through the project.”

The firm designed the U.S. Land Port of Entry in Van Buren, Maine, for the GSA; the sustainably built structure recently received kudos from the American Institute of Architects as one of the top 10 green projects for 2014. Snow and Kreilich were attracted to the challenge of using space differently, and beautifully.

“The projects we like the best are the ones where the clients want something fresh and new,” says Snow. “Generally if the request for quote starts with the words, ‘We want to rethink,’ we’re in.”

There are a lot of chefs in the kitchen when it comes to the projects—designers, builders, lighting people. And a lot of opportunities for innovation. Assembling this team is crucial, and to Snow, it’s like sending out dinner party invitations.

“You want to invite people who don’t look at the world through the same lens, and you have to know where to seat them,” she says with a laugh.

Once people are seated, the ideas come out, and that’s where the free flow of throw-everything-on-the-wall happens. If done right, the spark doesn’t fade after the ideas stage, but sustains throughout the project, says Snow. The rest is like directing a movie, and hoping you don’t end up with Ishtar.

What’s important to both Snow and Kreilich is that they don’t specialize. Many firms become known for designing hospitals or libraries or office buildings. They don’t want that; Kreilich shudders at the prospect.

“We have no interest in becoming an expert in any certain area,” he says. “If you do, you start to assume you know everything; innovation falls off. We go into every project assuming we don’t know anything, and that’s the way we like it. We want to put fresh eyes on a project.”

They also don’t mind getting a little obsessive about their work. That’s the price if you’re going to sustain energy over the duration of projects, which can sometimes take many years.

“You have to be. I mean, right now I’m obsessed with the Lower-town Ballpark,” Snow says, pointing out that the lights go on in St. Paul in the spring of 2015. “The Saints took a risk on us. They knew we had never done this before and they knew that we would offer something fresh and different and new. What they got was exactly that, and we think it will transform the city.

“Our role is to strategically think through what our clients are trying to do,” says Snow. “Some of them might be cultural. Some of them might be physical. So much of what we do is we look at the questions. And sometimes innovation means not doing architecture.”

Snow Kreilich Through the Years

  • Julie Snow founded her own firm in 1995, and changed the name to Snow Kreilich in 2014 with the addition of Matt Kreilich as a partner.
  • Seventeen employees.
  • Signature projects: U.S. Land Port of Entry building in Van Buren, Maine; Target Commons on Nicollet Mall; Lowertown ballpark for the St. Paul Saints.
  • Snow has taught architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, USC and the University of Minnesota College of Design, where she received the Ralph Rapson Award for Distinguished Teaching.
  • Kreilich has taught graduate design studios at the University of Minnesota and Syracuse University, and was recently honored with the AIA National Young Architect Award for outstanding design leadership.

International Inspiration: Tina Wilcox, Owner, Black Branding Agency

Tina Wilcox | Owner
Black Branding Agency

A self-avowed shopaholic travels all over the world looking for insights into the retail experience.

he reason Tina Wilcox named her retail brand agency Black is simple: She wants to help clients get in the black. Simple messaging. Clear. It’s what she does, and why clients like Target keep hiring her firm.


Wilcox believes in simplicity. If a consumer can quickly gather a positive association from a product on a shelf, the product might not stay shelved long.

The trick is to bring out a product’s differentiated qualities so consumers get it in an instant. That’s one of the stages where creativity comes into play. Wilcox, who comes off reserved and buttoned-down in person, likes to surround herself with big personalities to get to that creative energy.

“They can be quirky and crazy; I tend to love that in creative people—the wilder and more spirited the better,” she says. “We want people with a lot of ideas.”

But before they even get started selling the product, they work on assessing it. If it isn’t unique in some way—fun, exciting, new—no amount of advertising will sell it. Clients don’t always want to hear that.

“We do have those hard conversations with clients,” Wilcox says. “There are myths about what advertising can do, that it overcomes product liabilities. That’s not true, and you have to give clients the truth.”

Wilcox puts a premium on paying attention to what others do. She travels all over the world studying retail, and often has influenced products themselves. She’s done this for Target many times over.

“For years we worked on Target Christmas and brought in product ideas,” she says. “I would travel with [then-chief marketing officer] Michael Francis all over Europe and Asia and pick product that we thought was great and bring it back and develop our own version of it.”

Wilcox sees a lot of amazing work in her travels. Just little of it stateside as of late.

“London continues to be a really hot town for retail. Definitely Tokyo and Hong Kong, especially from a technology standpoint. Store windows are digital and move, and are so different than what you see here. I think the United States is really behind.”

Wilcox thinks even less of Twin Cities retail.

“It’s really terrible here. It’s sad to see the ma-and-pa retailers go under and the chain retailers come in, because there’s not as much differentiation. With Neiman’s closing and Bloomingdale’s leaving, Toto closing, it’s sad.”

In fact, you know who is kicking our behinds in retail, according to Wilcox? Cover your eyes, Minneapolis.

“I was just recently in Des Moines and they have more boutiques that I would shop than Minneapolis does,” Wilcox says. “Their retail has gotten pretty good.”

There is hope, though. She finds North Loop clothier Martin Patrick doing things in a fresh way. And she sees young talent coming into the pipeline, especially from Minneapolis College of Art & Design, which she says is doing a good job of giving designers real-world experience.

On the client, side, however, she finds the barrier to innovation rooted in that elemental component of human hesitancy: fear.

“People are afraid, especially people that are going to start up a store,” she says. “The small retailers are afraid of the titan. If you look at the demographic, it’s very much a Macy’s [customer] that’s here, and there’s a thin line at the top that’s the high-end buyer, and then there’s the discount buyer at the bottom. There’s not a lot of room in the middle. But you have a chance to have good product. It all starts there.”

Black Stats

  • Eight full-time employees, four part-time employees, one shark tank in the lobby
  • Founded in 2005
  • Clients: Target, Starbucks, Office Max, Best Buy, DreamWorks

Creatrix: Dr. Jacqueline Byrd’s Innovation Measurement Tool

In 2002, Dr. Jacqueline Byrd, a consultant based in the Twin Cities and co-author of The Innovation Equation with Paul Lockwood Brown, made a name for herself in the then-nascent territory of innovation thinkers. She’s gone on to develop Creatrix, a tool and process for driving innovation and change focused on releasing and leveraging the innovative power of people within an organization. Hundreds of companies, including General Mills, 3M and Land O’Lakes, have used Creatrix. “Once upon a time we were all innovators,” Byrd says. She shares the information below with clients to help them get back to their naturally innovative ways.

125 Innovators working in organizations told us about being an innovator:

  • Stay curious and look for interconnections
  • Stay determined
  • Believe in freedom of thought
  • Remain self-confident
  • Always believe there is a better way
  • Stay outspoken
  • Go outside existing resources and see the world in different ways