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?

Mark Addicks
Chief Marketing Officer | General Mills

Lead With Emotions: 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.”

Carter SIlvernail and Tony Erickson
Scientists | Ecolab

Failure Is an Option: 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.

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