Killer Innovations with Phil McKinney
An award-winning podcast that looks at the innovations that are changing our lives and how their innovators used creativity and design to take their raw idea and create game-changing products or services. Phil McKinney, retired CTO of HP and the creator, and host of Killer Innovations has been credited with forming and leading multiple teams that FastCompany and BusinessWeek list as one of the “50 Most Innovative”. His recognition includes Vanity Fair naming him the “The Innovation Guru”, MSNBC and Fox Business calling him "The Gadget Guy" and the San Jose Mercury News dubbing him the "chief seer".

Lonely Leadership

What are leadership struggles? Many leaders act as if the point they’ve reached in their careers was easy to reach. From my perspective, as I progressed throughout my career, I ran into many different struggles. These struggles are some that I believe every leader will encounter. Rather than hiding these struggles from you, I will be putting them out in the sunlight for all of you to see. I have come to realize that all leaders are alike. As much as we think we are different, we are not as unique as we think. We all share the same struggles. On today’s show, I will be discussing the various struggles all leaders face and how to counteract them.

The first leadership struggle I’ve encountered is lonely leadership. As you progress through an organization it gets harder to find people that understand you. Great leaders are told that transparency is a must. Be transparent. Share things with others around you. While transparency holds importance, is it always the answer? Transparency is only important to a point. There are some things you should not be transparent about.

You should never be transparent about your self-doubt. Being open about your struggles with employees can cause them concern about your organization. Secondly, never be transparent about your opinion of others. Especially key stakeholders. They will find out. My philosophy is to never burn a bridge no matter what. This decision has come back to benefit me throughout my career.

Thirdly, never be transparent about confidential information shared with you. I’ve seen may promising leaders sidelined because of issues of integrity and trust. Building a reputation of integrity as a leader is crucial. It can be lost in just one decision. Don’t make that mistake. This will shatter your career. Being a leader is lonely. Who can you share things with? Your spouse? Not always. I remember when I was at Teligent and we were the hottest new thing. We were on the cover of Business Week, Forbes, WSJ, NY Times etc. My wife was at her hairdresser one day, and the hairdresser was drilling her about information on Teligent. He assumed she had access to confidential information and was getting aggressive. After that, me and my wife came to an agreement to protect her. I do not share any confidential information with her. Never. She doesn’t want to be in that position.

Is there anyone you can be transparent with? Your coach or mentor. Let your board/shareholders know that you have a coach or mentor. If you’re going to share confidential information with someone, they should sign a non-disclosure agreement. All of this said, you will be lonely as a leader. It comes with the position. Do you have someone that you can be transparent with?



What Got You Here Won’t Keep You Here

Will the skills that helped you reach your position keep you there? These things will not keep you here or progress you in your career. Look at me for instance. My specialty is technical work. I have not touched technical work in 15 years. I had to learn new skills in order to advance. How did I learn those different skills? Right out of college, I was told by my mentor Bob that in order to find success, I had to broaden my playing fields. I knew my specialty very well, but I needed to have a variety of experiences. What did I do? I rotated in marketing, sales, finance, IT, etc. I did everything. While these experiences broadened my knowledge, it wasn’t enough. What were the skillsets that brought me to success?

  • Organization design - How do you structure a team? You have to be willing to adjust in order to create a successful organizational structure.
  • People Reading - Each person is unique and you have to commit to learning them.
  • Consensus BuildingLearn the individuals and their objectives. I do one on one calls with each member of my board before meetings. This helps me to get a better grasp on the thoughts and feelings of each member.
  • Objective Setting – How do you set good objectives? use OKR’s/make sure they are clear and measurable. Grant autonomy letting your experts use their skills to achieve ultimate success.


Consequences of Ideas and Statements

Ideas and statements made as a leader have consequences. Things will get taken out of context and all the sudden they become the “new law”. When I was CEO at Cable Labs, I told my team that the most common statement they would hear was “Phil said”. In many cases what I said was misinterpreted or misused. The best proof point of this in my career is press coverage. If you google my name and read the articles on the first 16 pages of google, not a single article got the situation 100% correct. At Cable Labs, we had issues with the press pushing out false information. This caused employees to start worrying about the longevity of our Colorado office. I had to call a meeting with my all my employees to address this issue. I made a commitment to my staff that day that they would hear from me first, and not the press. In fact, this created a new culture at Cable Labs called the “no surprise rule” to constantly remind my employees of this. Why do I do this? Because ideas and statements can be a disaster. You need to be hyper-vigilant about what you say, how you say it, and how you operate. Are you conveying statements the right way?


Creative Self-Doubt

What is the number one skill leaders are expected to have? Creativity/ ingenuity leading to product, service, and operational innovation. Many leaders get promoted to a leadership role because of innovation they are credited with. Look at Nobel Laureates. There is a trend of peaks seen from the recipients of Nobel awards. One in their mid-twenties and one in their mid-fifties. The question comes down to this. Do you still have your creativity?


What type of innovator are you?

Conceptual Innovators - “Think outside the box,” challenging conventional wisdom and suddenly coming up with new ideas. Conceptual innovators tend to peak early in their careers.


Experimental Innovators - Accumulate knowledge through their careers and find groundbreaking ways to analyze, interpret and synthesize that information into new ways of understanding. The long periods of trial and error required for important experimental innovations make them tend to occur late in a Nobel laureate’s career. Success comes from recognizing that as an innovator we need to shift from the conceptual to the experimental.

Let’s connect; I am on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter. If we do connect, drop me a note and let me know. The email address is or you can go to and drop me a note there. If you are looking for innovation support go to TheInnovators.Network or want to be challenged to develop the next big idea, check out our Disruptive Ideation Workshops. Don’t forget to join our Innovators Community to enjoy more conversations around innovation.

Direct download: 4_Leadership_Struggles_I_Had_to_Overcome.mp3
Category:Past Shows -- posted at: 12:00am PDT

What do you think about when looking at innovation? Most organizations look at innovation as the process of coming up with new products. This statement is only partially correct. How do you achieve innovation success? The innovation world is continuously moving. Finding the best way to innovate products and services is vital to success. How do you find the best way to innovate in your arena? Is there a better way to go beyond the small fixes and reach new possibilities? On today’s show, I will discuss in more detail how to challenge your innovation efforts with idea hacking.

When I was at HP, there was this catalyst project based on battery life. Battery life is a nightmare. How do you increase the life of batteries while making them safe? Battery life only sees improvements of 10% every year. The battery is a chemistry problem. Their design has not changed since their invention. A breakthrough was needed, but the reality was that chemistry could not move fast enough. There were improvements made to the power, but not to the battery. These come from hard drives and screen fixes that save and conserve power. How were these improvements made? The perspective of the opportunity and problem was changed. How would you define the need? How would you describe the issue to reach that different perspective?

Feature to Function Innovation

What unlocked the ideas not considered previously? Changing the challenge from “how can we improve batteries?” to “how can we improve portable power?”. This change in mindset may not seem like much, but this switch caused a seismic shift. Battery improvement is “feature innovation.” Portable power is “function innovation.” That simple shift from feature to function innovation unlocked a flood of new ideas. It created an increase in the quality and quantity of views. What was the result? A new desire for the constant availability of power. New innovative opportunities arose from this shift in thinking. HP began funding universities and hosting ideation workshops in their efforts to create new creative ideas. This concept then turned into a product. Toshiba and HP started working on a co-innovation attempt to create a portable charging device. Toshiba went on to release a refillable USB charger device that sold for USD 328. That is the power of a simple shift in thinking. New innovative ideas are born from changing the challenge. How do you apply the shift form feature innovation to function innovation to your goals?

Here are four key steps:

Step 1 –

  • Define the Product/Service You Are Focused On (Example: high-end laptop)

Step 2 –

  • Describe What its Features Are — What it Does (Example: 17” screen, Intel i9 processors. Keyboard)
  • What feature innovations are you thinking about for the next version? (Example: DreamColor screen, GPU, etc.)

Step 3 –

  • Step Back and Describe the Core “Function” of the Product or Service (Example: Portable computer)
  • How many ways could you define the function? What is the most fundamental core function? (Example: digital file cabinet, digital photo shoebox, etc.)

Step 4 –

  • Ask How Else You Could Perform/Enable the Function (Example: Portable compute — > Phone mobile -- thin/edge devices)


Apply the little shift in thinking to just about anything. Think about a cup. How many ways can you innovate a cup? There are coffee cups, teacups, Yeti-like cups, sippy cups, etc. What if I asked you to innovate a way to carry liquids? You could cup your hands, use your mouth, use a sponge, use a hose, etc. See what ideas you come up with and post them at The Innovators Community. That simple shift from the feature (innovate a cup) to function (innovate a way to carry liquid) shifted the perspective resulting in ideas never that were before considered.


Applying Function Innovation 

You can apply function innovation can to anything from products, services, business models, internal operations, etc. Apply it to any organization from small, large, government, NGO, and Non-Profit companies. Function innovation radically increases the number of ideas you unlock. Is function innovation easy to apply? No, it is a lot harder than it looks. The simple shift from innovating cups to innovating ways to carry liquid is vital to creating new ideas. Why is the process of function innovation so hard? Our human nature wants to jump to the feature. We want a larger hard drive on a laptop, or a bigger cup so we don’t have to refill it so often. We jump to the feature rather than focusing on the function. How do you fix this problem?

Here is an approach I have used thousands of times in product development:

  • Take each feature. Example: 2TB hard drive
  • Define the function: reliable mobile data storage
  • Innovate that function: idea — 2TB solid-state (no moving parts)
  • Repeat for every feature
  • Combine them to create a new product/service made up of innovated multiple functions

This process of going from feature innovation to function innovation is the secret that took HP from #3 or 4 in the marketplace to #1 tech company in the world with their computing products. This function approach will allow you to create a variety of new ideas that could lead to a breakthrough product or service.


Let’s connect; I am on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter. If we do connect, drop me a note and let me know. The email address is, or you can go to and drop me a note there. If you are looking for innovation support, go to TheInnovators.Network or want to be challenged to develop the next big idea, check out our Disruptive Ideation Workshops. Don’t forget to join our Innovators Community to enjoy more conversations around innovation.




Direct download: Idea_Hacking_Feature_Innovation_Versus_Function_Innovation.mp3
Category:Past Shows -- posted at: 12:00am PDT

Direct download: The_Six_Innovation_Skills_Everyone_Needs.mp3
Category:Past Shows -- posted at: 12:00am PDT

How do you manage over $100B in spending to innovate and not let that scale overcome your vision and approach to driving the most effective outcomes?  Can you balance speed and performance, short and long term innovation in parallel? Overseeing and innovating throughout the US Navy’s vast involvements to protect is a daunting task at hand. From basic to in-depth research, development, procurement, deployment and sustainment of assets, the Navy is always working to stay one step ahead of the world in innovation. How do you optimize your choices and take the right risks while empowering your workforce to successfully complete a job? Today’s guest on Killer Innovations stands at the forefront of these decisive decisions every day and has a keen eye for high speed, low drag. Assistant Secretary of Research, Development and Acquisition James ‘Hondo’ Geurts has been innovating the U.S military’s ecosystem for over 30 years and will to discuss his involvement in taking the Navy into the next wave of innovation.

Staying Focused While Differentiating

The demands of the US Navy require a multi-dexterous approach that works to avoid getting overwhelmed by bureaucracy and standardization which limits flexibility needed for today’s forces. Many organizations have problems doing many things well or even multiple workstreams, multiple ways. Jim’s task is to ensure the Navy can do that while boldly stepping out and harnessing innovation with scale and speed, knowing there are certain areas they absolutely cannot fail in. With such vast organization and many opportunities to advance the Navy, Jim uses a simple, but powerful wet-dry framework to differentiate the work. In a large scale innovation you have to operate with speed of relevancy. Simultaneously, you may have one group operating with a longer term workstream or low iteration speed that requires assured performance, while the other at high iteration speed and low iteration cost. You can’t lock into one approach for multiple threads of innovation pacing in a single deliverable or launch. However, those workstreams have to operate and synchronize at the right timing for an effective state of the art product deliverable. Each group that is innovating at a speed relevant to their workstream needs to be valued equally, though they may have a varying culture. Staying focused on mission and how each contributes allows you to have differentiating approaches, innovation paces and cultures in one large scale innovation effort. Another challenge in balancing the speed and relevancy of a mission need is absorption rate. Sometimes rapid innovation outpaces the ability to absorb and integrate, deploy, train and operationalize capabilities. Keeping an active focus and appropriate disciplines on mission speed and relevancy ensures efficiency.    

Innovation Leadership

How do you manage the right thing at the right time and synthesize it to meet a critical mission and the expectation you have out innovated your competition? In a leadership position like this, one is often faced with the challenge of how to operationalize and develop a successful team. Jim discusses his strategy to motivate his workforce in three core ways:

  • Ruthlessly Decentralize – layout vision with focus on intent and empower your workforce—free to make decisions
  • Offer Various Tools – differentiate the work, allow them use multiple tools and customize for the right tools as needed
  • Have an Agility Mindset – create a good enough plan with proper intent, tools needed and be ready to pivot with pivot speed and adapt to change
  • Get Rid of Stupid – remove things that are wasting time in the organization and don’t replace it with more stupid time wasters, but with items that create or preserve value

When in a leadership position such as Jim Geurts, there is limited opportunity to be specifically involved in each situation. To deliver excellence for the mission, Jim has focused on enablers to deliver his intent to the organization, even when he is not available:

  • Learn Fast and Act Fast – press the boundaries, expect 50% failure with appropriate judgement and measured risk
  • It’s About Team – outcome of the idea and answer to the problem is more important than who it came from
  • Be a Servant Leader – create conditions and foundations for others to succeed—realize that you are there to help those under you, not vice versa
  • Explain Your Intent – continuously repeat your intent until your audience gets it

Importance of Agility in Innovation

How do you plan for the unknown? The unknown can be a daunting thought to those unprepared for it. Building a culture, mindset and set of skills that increase pivot speed to take advantage of upside opportunities prepares you for the unknown and ultimately makes or breaks an organization’s success. Couple of insights Jim has learned from his Special Operations Command days and other experiences he employs today:

  • Get Over Fear of Failure try something new
  • All about a Learning Environment - value best ideas not necessarily individual ideas—collaborate and improve on individual ideas with a team
  • Have a Network that is Diverse and Inclusive – engage a variety of functions, levels, internal and external organizations
  • Rip Off and Deploy – don’t just value inventing yourself, look for what can be innovated on
  • Kill Projects Fast – if a project is not going anywhere, move on – takes thoughtful deliberation, courage and leadership
  • Don’t Overvalue Discovery and Undervalue Deployment – ideas must be made real and delivered to a customer

When it comes to the working with the military, many businesses are intimidated by it. So how do you create a friendlier and easier path to make a contribution? Jim’ strategies focus on reducing barriers with a variety of incentives to bring the best ideas forward at the lowest cost. These include connecting the idea generators from the sailor to the startup with access points, and creating an environment in which contributors want to bring their best in class solutions at the best price to the Navy.

Engaging to Contribute for Success

While there is no one perfect path or mechanism for organizations to contribute to the Navy’s mission Jim Geurts, or ‘Hondo’ as many call him, has created as large a surface as he can to attract innovative solutions from any internal or external entity. With his leadership the Navy has:

  • Spent $500M+ each year on Small Business Innovation Research (SBIRs) – broadcasting events, educating and discussing needs.
  • Doubled Efforts to Leverage Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRDA)
  • Instituted Tech Bridges – multiple tech clusters to help certain mission areas
  • Created Challenges for Solutions – pay on the spot
  • Shortened Procurement Timelines – Idea to contract in 90 days or less programs

Hondo’s emphasizes the Navy’s focus on being multi-dexterous—good at all things from small to large while enabling scale and speed. There are many challenges from talent development to mission solutions. When we open up our approach and mindset working with outside sources, like inventors such as Dean Kaman, we will leverage more innovation and apply technologies to elements we didn’t envision as traditional tech solutions. That requires though an ecosystem of the best/most qualified internal and external entities supporting to complete any given mission with efficiency.

About our Guest

James ‘Hondo’ Geurts is Assistant Secretary of the Navy (Research, Development and Acquisition). Mr. Geurts is responsible for a $100B+ budget, as well as supporting and equipping Marines and Sailors with the top technology and systems to better them in their pursuit to defend the United States of America. Prior to his time current position he served as Acquisition Executive of US Special Operations Command (SOCOM), with responsibility of overseeing special operations forces acquisition, technology, and logistics. Through this position, Geurts innovative leadership and mindset bettered USSOCOM and earned him the Presidential Rank Award, USSOCOM Medal, William Perry Award, and Federal Times Vanguard Award for Executive of the Year. Prior to his service with USSOCOM, Mr. Geurts served as an executive officer with the Air Force. Throughout Geurts 30 years of extensive joint acquisition experience and service, he has earned the respect of many of his colleagues, and has used his innovative mindset to better the defenses of the United States.

Let’s connect; I am on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter.  If we do connect, drop me a note and let me know.  The email address is or you can go to and drop me a note there.  If you are looking for innovation support go to TheInnovators.Network or want to be challenged to develop the next big idea, check out our Disruptive Ideation Workshops, with our next one in Washington DC, November 18-19th.  Don’t forget to join our Innovators Community to enjoy more conversations around innovation.

Direct download: Taking_the_Navy_into_the_Next_Wave_of_Innovation.mp3
Category:Past Shows -- posted at: 12:00am PDT