As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Howell J. Malham Jr. Founder and President, GreenHouse::Innovation.
Howell is an innovation strategist who helps organizations disrupt rigid, constrictive norms in order to design positive change.
He co-founded Insight Labs in 2010, the world’s first philanthropic think tank, to design and develop radical new frameworks for change in partnership with organizations in the public, private, social academic sectors. He was a founding director of UX for Good. He founded GreenHouse::Innovation in 2014.
Howell was the first innovator in residence at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work in Los Angeles. He developed the GreenHouse Theory of Social Innovation, and is co-author of the first practicing PhD in social innovation, leadership and advanced management. Howell is the chief architect of Strategic Imagination™; and the creator of Innovation Dynamics, ™ a unique collection of lenses used to identify norms that hold problems — and conventional thinking — in place.
A recovering brand strategist, he has worked with Walgreens, Allstate, Universal Studios, 20th Century Fox, LEGO, Quaker Oats, and HarperCollins. He has also written for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and Fast Company. He pens the column, On Norms.
He is the author of I Have A Strategy (No You Don’t): The Illustrated Guide To Strategy (Wiley Jossey-Bass), and is currently working on his second book.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
For most of my adult life, I wondered:: What makes a social problem a “social problem”? What keeps those problems — and the thinking of the people trying to solve those problems — in place? And might there be new ways to see those problems, model those problems, in order to design new ways to think about how we tackle those problems to effect meaningful, measurable change? It took a while but eventually I discovered how to design a career that would, in fact, allow me to tackle to those questions; and share the answers and insights with organizations that are working to do the most good for a world in desperate need of radical models for change.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
In my days as a brand strategist at a digital agency, I asked a client why he thought he needed to pay us all that money — and it was a lot of money — to rebrand his firm. He said, “Because my existing brand keeps me up all night.” I told him, “Your brand is fine. Maybe what you need is a new mattress.” I was, of course, being wry, but only to make a larger point: That it didn’t make any sense (to me) to pay us for a solution — a solution that we sold for a profit — when that solution might be solving the wrong problem. My boss didn’t like it, but as it turned out, I was right: his brand was perfectly fine. The fact that we were willing to work against our financial interest in that particular case endeared that client — and his team — to our agency on the spot. We didn’t do a rebrand but we did solve other, more important problems for the firm. And we even threw in a free mattress.
This wasn’t a lesson so much as an important reminder: Always speak truth, especially to money.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
Recently, a friend of mine gave me his copy of Alain de Botton’s Consolations of Philosophy — an homage to the Consolation of Philosophy written by Boethius in the sixth century.
In the chapter on Seneca, “Consolation for Frustration,” de Botton shares the philosopher’s take on the concept of productum: literally, the preferred thing, such as wealth, good health, a sunny day with a heavenly breeze.
The wise person will always choose the better, or preferred, option offered by Fortune- — wealth over impoverishment; health over illness; a sunny day with a heavenly breeze over a polar vortex.
What makes one wise, however, is how one reacts when faced with poverty, sickness, a polar vortex. Even a pandemic.
It’s a sobering and rather inspired reminder that though we should wish for the preferred thing — and would grab it in a heartbeat — we should not consider ourselves unsuccessful or unhappy if it doesn’t come our way.
“Philosophy must reconcile us to the true dimensions of [the real],” de Botton writes. “Her task is to prepare for our wishes the softest landing possible on the adamantine wall of reality.”
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
To define a new meaning for the word “innovation” — moving it away from connotations of “blowing everything up” as it’s still fashionable to say, remarkably; or that it requires a restless culture of constant, incessant disruption; or that it’s some mysterious and costly process that happens behind the consultant’s curtain, and will never be grokked by the uninitiated.
We want to explain what innovation is; we want to help our partners understand how innovation works, innovating with them not at them; and we would like them, eventually, to be able to innovate own their own: rapidly, systematically, repeatedly.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Funny you should ask as I just acquired a new one — inspired by the book I mentioned above: It takes an awful lot sh*t to make a beautiful garden. Something one should keep in mind when the manure is hitting the fan. The trick, of course, is knowing how to garden one’s business and one’s life. If you’re like me, your life is your business — and you’re being compensated to do you: thinking about things and doing things that are important and meaningful to you, and that, hopefully, add value to others in some way.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
The pandemic became quite real for my family early on as three of my siblings contracted COVID-19 in two different states. They were hospitalized and we were locked down in Chicago.
Between the isolation and mounting uncertainty about this novel virus, not to mention feeling in the dark about my sibs’ cases, it was easy to succumb to feelings of helplessness.
We stepped up our communications with the rest of the family, opting for video instead of phone: it helped to see faces, not just hear voices.
The regular dialogue did not lessen the severity of the situation but it made us feel less alone; and, in that, less helpless. Even cautiously optimistic.
The good news: They’ve recovered.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
The biggest challenge was — and still is — working in a sort of solitary confinement, without the presence of my colleagues and friends; all the magnificent beings upon whom I rely for those beautiful, spontaneous collisions of thoughts and ideas that happen when we are together in real time and in real life in front of a whiteboard.
Ideating on Zoom, while useful, is not a substitute for those moments; it’s a mediated experience with a reality, a different reality, of its own.
Still, we have managed to press on — admirably, I should add.
Before COVID-19, GreenHouse::Innovation and Greentarget Global Group were already working on a regular basis with our partners at LAB/Amsterdam to identify the norms that govern the ways we work and where we work to better understand how those norms — specifically social norms — influence wellness in the workforce. This was part of a larger initiative to help business leaders figure out how to minimize employee burnout, attract the best talent, and design and maintain healthier office cultures, ones that promote profitability, sustainability and total wellness.
Then along came pandemic.
Given the new constraints and conditions — lockdowns, quarantines, social distancing — we contemplated scrubbing the project…for about 30 seconds. If the pandemic did anything with regard to our work, it elevated the importance of this particular project in the eyes of many different groups of actors who weren’t in the original framing.
And stepped up the demand for answers to questions that had never been asked before.
Nearly four months — and dozens of video and phone interviews later — we launched the newly designed Immediate Frontier site, with the first stave of our report on work, wellness and space in the era of the novel virus.
The fact that we pulled this off-working remotely from our respective home bases, without the benefit of daily, in-person interactions, and did so on schedule, is quite an achievement by my lights. It speaks volumes of the gumption, brilliance and belief of our colleagues at Greentarget and LAB.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
As I mentioned, staying connected — while keeping our distance — is helping enormously. Finding time for as much dialogue as possible has served us well — especially dialogue with actors in our social groups who have been actively and openly resistant to the CDC recommendations.
Rather than writing them off — the easy albeit lazy thing to do — we have done everything possible to keep open communication channels with those who disagree with us for, as it turns out, most don’t want to argue facts — they just want to talk about feelings. Their feelings.
More specifically, they want to be heard.
Hearing can be hard, especially when there are strong disagreements about what is and what is not in this inverted world of ours. That’s why it’s not a bad idea to adopt the attitude of a social worker — or a stoic depending on the situation — even among friends and family. Sometimes it’s the only way to get through conversations that irritate and infuriate, even when there isn’t a pandemic raging in the world.
Besides, slamming the door in the faces of people who don’t see eye to eye with you can result in even unhappier consequences for both parties in the long run; and further polarize actors who, at some point, are going to have to figure out how to coexist peacefully — in a family, a community, a nation.
Bottom line: Focus on what you can do — or are doing — to make a positive impact in your life and the lives of other; recognize where you’re getting it right and give yourself a tremendous round of applause; watch and read as little news as is humanly possible; exercise every chance you get; give yourself permission to be awestruck by what’s left of nature — a glimpse of the waxing gibbous moon on a sunny afternoon or the reflection of treetops in a rain puddle.
And remember that this is for now. It is not forever.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
The biggest challenges always present the biggest opportunities. But only in the eyes of those who are willing to see those challenges as an invitation for growth, for change.
At GreenHouse, we’re using this moment as an opportunity to help leaders identify the hidden value that resides within existing business models; value that has always been there yet has never been seen — and would never have been recognized or seized if a pandemic didn’t push everyone’s back against the wall, daring us to imagine what we could do if we couldn’t do the things we did they way we did them before March 11, 2020, with the resources, the staff, the assets that we already have.
When we identify and transcend the norms that have long influenced how we think and don’t think about the business of business, we see everything anew: offerings and assets that can be repurposed and utilized in different ways — ways that were never on the table because, frankly, we didn’t need them on the table, not before COVID-19 threw down the gauntlet.
New utilities mean new value — and new value propositions to help organizations remain relevant, profitable and sustainable even in, especially in, the most challenging of times.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
When it comes to the workplace, expect to see smart, serious business leaders who are in this for the long haul doubling down on mental wellness and related services. This is one of the big insights from the Immediate Frontier:: Work, Wellness & Space project.
The domain experts we spoke to said, however, that those services should not be positioned and offered as “therapy.” They think it’s best to frame them as performance assistance; some even suggested promoting the services as coaching.
Regardless, corporate wellness programs must take everything into consideration: the physical, the mental, the emotional and the social; as in, understanding what is happening societally, and how it impacts the health and wellness of office culture — which is composed of people — wherever the office is.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
GreenHouse is needed now more than ever.
Presently we’re making the necessary adjustments to meet the demand of more and more organizations — for profits, nonprofits — that are in trouble and require our help.
While disruption in some form is inevitable in a market economy, having one’s organization disrupted — or completely obliterated — is not. Even in a pandemic.
Certainly not for organizations with leaders who are interested and serious about things like profit and sustainability. And who understand that change always — always — equals growth in some way, shape or form.
And that growth is good, with apologies to Gordon Gekko.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
Don’t look back. COVID-19 brought the curtain down on the 20th century — not only are there new rules, there are new motivations for starting a business, running a business and building a business, very different from last century’s motives.
This is the era to do well by doing good; and doing good by doing well. To do otherwise spells doom — for society, for the economy, the whole Megillah.
The CEOs who inked the Business Roundtable purpose statement for corporations back in August 2019 — with a pledge to promote an economy that serves society not just shareholders — had no idea that there was a pandemic in the offing, which would provide the perfect opportunity to make good on all of those promises, sooner rather than later.
And set a new, better example for business leaders everywhere.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
There’s a lovely quote from Heraclitus in his Fragments that I read a long time ago, but took on a deeper meaning for me recently: “The sun is new each day.” Now I find myself thinking about those words every morning I am lucky enough to wake up alive, ready to accept an invitation to another day. If the sun can be new again, each day, why can’t I?
How can our readers further follow your work?
For those who are interested in the Work, Wellness & Space Project, visit immediatefrontier.com. To learn more about GreenHouse, check out ghouseinnovation.com. To explore my blog, Breaking Norms, click here. And if you’d like to see what I have to say in 280 characters or less, follow me on Twitter @greatsocialgood.