If Amazon.com is to be believed, at least 58,000 professors, CEOs and other innovation experts are vying for our attention. Each guru has spent years creating a book about pioneers such as Apple, IDEO, Zappos and Starbucks. The result: mountains of earnest wisdom explaining the secrets of business breakthroughs.
Then there’s the fellow who calls himself Steve Musselman.
I met Musselman this week at Z Below, a small, basement-level theater in San Francisco’s Mission district, where he was running a 90-minute innovation seminar based on the business practices of YD Industries. Come again? Musselman, in full deadpan, assured us that YD is an economic giant, with 27,000 employees, a vast headquarters campus in New Rochelle, N.Y., and a product line that spans everything from medieval-themed burger restaurants to voice-compression software.
It didn’t take long for us attendees to realize that YD Industries exists only in Musselman’s mind. The company turned out to a nonstop spoof of the business cliches that we live with every day. The company’s logo: an inane combination of a duck bill and electrons orbiting an atomic nucleus. The founder, as depicted in a PowerPoint slide: a goateed relic of a different era, best known for his memoir: “Lion in the Chicken Coop.” The company’s iconic strength: “ambiguity.”
Nothing in YD’s product catalog sounds remotely marketable. Blissfully unaware of the idiocy of his wares, Musselman told brief stories about the market triumphs associated with swimming-pool gondolas, nose-hair extensions and — YD’s earliest breakthrough — a chair simulator that lets people practice sitting down.
“This didn’t do well at all in the U.S. at first,” Musselman declared. “But we achieved greater successes in Mexico and Argentina. Then, when the U.S. market was ready, we brought it back here. It goes to show the importance of our motto: IDACSU. That’s a shorthand for our founder’s great insight: “idea + action = success.”
Before long, buffoonery spread into the audience. Musselman showed slides of odd landscapes, animals and machines — and asked attendees to come up with products for each situation. Ideas tumbled forth: yoga classes for cows; robotic dog-walkers for families that didn’t want to go outside, and so on. A few minutes later, attendees huddled in small groups to sketch out designs and marketing campaigns for each one. All the while, Musselman (who in real life is a startup veteran known as George Nachtrieb) advised people: “Say yes to everything.”
The net result: some witty and imaginative ideas. They all bubbled out of the irreverent and carefree mood created by the absurdities of the YD Industries tale. It left me wondering whether mainstream approaches to innovation could use a lighter touch, too. After all, even the iPod didn’t start with Steve Jobs telling everyone to create $100 billion of shareholder value. That’s not how great tinkering happens. Instead, innovation must harness the free-wheeling ways of tinkerers who aren’t sure where they are going.