Helene Cahen was interviewed by JP McAvoy on his Podcast The Millionaire’s Lawyer. It was a fun interview where she explained the process she uses with her clients to build innovation skills. And for the French speakers, there is even part of the interview in French!


Innovation Sovereign: An interview with JP McAvoy on The Millionaire’s Lawyer

Welcome to the Millionaire’s Lawyer. Today we are speaking with Helene Cahen who is an innovation consultant. She is a trainer, facilitator, coach and speaker with over 20 years of experience helping companies navigate innovation changes. She guides Fortune 500, small businesses and non-profits to have a better understanding of innovation and innovation processes. She creates new products and services and helps build effective teams and support a user-centered culture. She is with Strategic Insights and has had executive and management positions in advertising, marketing research, HR, finance and sales and was a VP of Innovation for a start-up.

JP: Helene, how are you doing today?

Helene: Great, good morning, so glad to be here with you.

Nice to see you on this side. We are talking about an innovation consultant. I think it is perhaps self-explanatory but can you can tell us a little bit more about what an innovation consultant does on a day-to-day basis?

Well, it is pretty easy in a way and very complicated. Basically, a lot of companies want to be innovative. Whether they are small or big, it is a big buzz word. But really nobody knows how to do it. People are not trained; it is not something you learn in school. And then (people) are put together in a team and they are tasked to innovate. This is where I can really help.

Task to innovate. That can be industry specific. You are looking at whatever a business is doing. Can you talk about how they can be innovative in their own space?

Yes. Really my work is about process, tools and ultimately thinking. So, I work for any type of industry. I work for software, I work for small businesses, I work for fashion, I work for a packaged goods company. It really doesn’t matter because the thinking and the process and the ways we can work better together as a team are pretty much the same.

That is so interesting — so fascinating when you say that, so I would love to dig in a little bit deeper. When you say process, tool, thinking, can we go through an exercise and see how it would look like? How would you take somebody through that? Take us through — beginning with process, let’s go through the process.

So, for those who know these buzz words, I will give you a little bit of context then I will fully explain for everybody else. The framework I use is a mix of Design Thinking and Creative Problem Solving. But ultimately you have to think beyond business. You have a problem and you do not have an obvious solution, so we need to use our creativity.  And what it takes are three universal steps.

  • The first one is to be sure we understand fully and work on the right problem. Einstein supposedly had said “if I had an hour to save the world, I would take 55 minutes to understand the problem”. This is often what we do not do because we make assumptions and jump to conclusions and take an idea and run.
  • The second big step is to look at many ideas, look at all our options, think a little bit out of the box and then narrow down our options.
  • And the third part is to develop and implement them (the ideas).

So, it is about understanding the problem, ideate and develop solutions and test and implement.

As you see a lot of it is laying out foundations properly from the beginning by understanding the questions and what we are actually solving, right?

Exactly. And often we do not take enough time. We each come from a different background, we all have our specialty and so we come in with some biases we do not even know. We think we know what the problem is. The R&D persons knows it and the sales person knows it and the marketing person knows it. But guess what? There are different aspects to it and unless we talk together and really put together all the things we know and create a shared understanding, realizing that there are actually a lot of problems we could solve. Which one is the one we think is important, the one we want to solve right now and it going to really help us achieve the goals? The other thing that is really important is to be clear about what we are trying to achieve. Too often people have this great new project and are very excited and they spend a lot of money and time and then two years later they wonder why they actually have done that. So, we should be really clear upfront about what we are trying to accomplish together.

I understand and it makes sense. You really have to dig in and make sure you are hitting that target. And once you have identified the problem what’s the next step? I know I am taking a leap as I say that. Now we have identified the problem. Does that make sense to work through a practical application?


Let me think about what comes across my desk. For example, I get a lot of people doing technology with AI. Voice AI in particular is one I am seeing a fair bit of in my day job. So, I have a client that developed voice AI. They are looking to commercialize voice AI and looking to solve a problem. There are AI companies that want to provide information and answers to members of the public. I have clients that want to deliver legal solutions to member of the public. People who have questions about the law in their specific jurisdictions. They are looking for voice AI solutions to all those problems. So here we are, the company, a real-world example. We need to drill down to understand what this is before beginning implementing or innovating. So how would you take us through that example?

This is the perfect example since tech is often like that. There is a visionary founder that has the product idea, and sometimes it is great but I would come and talk to them, to you and ask them to back up a little bit. What do we know about our potential users? What are the problems? What are they doing today? We talk a lot in design thinking about ethnographic research. Not research when you just talk to people in the vacuum but go their law offices, go to somebody’s home who has a legal problem and ask them how they search today. And watch them, ask them to fill up a diary, really understand what they doing today. See what is working for them and what is not working so well. Then we can say.  We would also would have market research, data, hard data, qualitative and quantitative information, things we know, and we can decide which problem we really want to solve. Instead of saying we just want to do artificial intelligence for legal issues, what problem do we really want to solve? Maybe we realize that the biggest problem from our research is that people are really overwhelmed. So now we have a more specific problem; how to make an AI system that will quickly get answers that would take days when people may actually drop the ball because they do not even know what to do. So now we have a specific problem then we can look for ideas. So, we have an AI technology but now that we have a more specific problem about making it really easy and fast. then we can define a product better and look at options to really deliver on that. That would be the idea phase. And then once we have that, before we put a lot of research time and R&D, because it is probably very expensive, can we do some very fast and cheap prototyping. It could even be using this tool that is called “Wizard of Oz” tool. So you would have people come and pretend they will be doing some research about the AI and somebody would be pretending they are the AI but actually there is no AI. it is a human person for now but people do not know that because it would be behind a screen but people could have this experience of how it would be to work with an AI and what works and what does not. So, we can learn a lot without spending a lot of time or money. And then we can have a prototype that works on one aspect and then we will develop it and learn. So, the testing and learning and not trying to be perfect is also very important as it fasten the process and save a lot of time and money. It is a very different mentality than not being willing to do anything unless you have all your decks in a row. And guess what? Specially in this field (AI) if you wait too long that technology is going to be obsolete anyway.

Interesting that this is a type of advice we give often. Get going on your project, test it and be ready to pivot or change shape or evolve as you are going along. You have to do that particularly in the technology industry. It is a necessary component of trying to keep up with the pace of change that is occurring right now.

So, we talked about what is almost a proof of concept. You are moving into prototype. Interesting some of the AI company do exactly what you describe. They have a live person behind acting as an AI agent for a period of time to give some shape and form to things. So, you are getting into a proof of concept as you build up that prototype. So, what is next for the business owner?

What is next is scaling it up and doing in a way that limits risk but also go fast. There is always that tension, especially in technology. If you are a small business owner you may not be able to invest $20 or $40 million, we may be struggling for funding. So how can you scale it up and get that proof of concept. Maybe you do the fake thing, then have a real one and then you do a test with 20 people and see what happens. And it is really the idea that it is not a linear process, it is iterative. So, you learn, you change and you get to the next step, and the next and the next. For small businesses it is always the challenge. Do we have the funding? So, the question is how can we be smarter since we do not have the corporate resources, we cannot through $10, 20, 100 million for the project. So, it is the agility and the mentality to just try, learn and cut some corners. It is OK, it does not have to be perfect.  And we can learn and really move the project forward.

Yes, you are really hitting it on the head again. That what’s allow them to get to the spot where they are perhaps investment worthy, I am not saying investment ready, but investment worthy, right. That is something where an investor can bring their skill set and is prepared to invest. To get to that spot. I see a lot of clients are in the phase you describing there. And it is a mentality, you used the word mentality and I think it is a good word to use for it.  We talked about the word mentality. What are some the ways you work with clients to put them in the right frame of mind and make sure they are thinking about things in the right way?

There is a framework I use that I think is very useful. Sometimes I tell my clients “don’t remember anything about my training, just remember this”. This is called the principle of Dynamic Balance. The idea is that, in a creative process, any phase of it, there are two key elements: Diverging: when you are diverging you look at a lot of options, and the most important part is that there are rules associated with it is. The most important one is to “suspend judgment”, so let’s throw everything. It does not matter if it feels silly, stupid, be something you will never do, just throw it there. It can be 100 ways to look at your problem, 100 ideas for your product, it can be 100 ways to sell it to new clients, 100 ways to convince new investors, anything…

So, you are saying 100 ways without judgment?

Exactly. Let’s just do that. And sometimes let’s take 10 minutes as a group and for next 10 minutes, we are not going to say “this is not possible, this takes too much time, we will never do it in our company…” let’s just suspend that. Let’s take everything. I work with a lot of post-its so people can work at the same time, everything is there, nobody has to fight for their idea because everything can be in that space. And then the second phase of that Dynamic Balance is the “convergence”. And when you converge, you pick and select. And there are also rules associated with that. You want to give every idea a chance, you want to be sure you look at your objectives. What does success look like? Is it going to fit with your criteria? The other thing not to forget is that you are trying to do something new. Don’t kill novelty too early. And this process is very important. And often in traditional creativity, people say “we did a brainstorming and we had 300 ideas and nothing happened”! That is because you did the divergence and came up with 300 ideas, but you do not have a process and a system to converge and pick and make decisions and decide what is in and what is out in a very clear way. That also why the same ideas keep coming back again and again. Because I had this idea at the meeting and I was not heard, so the idea comes back again and it is not efficient. So, the Dynamic Balance principles is something that is really powerful. It is a different mentality. It can be on a big scale. I work with clients and we do a three-day workshop and we may do diverge and converge may be 20 times. Or maybe we have an hour meeting and we are stuck. And we say “(for) five minutes, everybody’s idea is good” and then we decide and pick. It does not have to be big, but it is a big mind shift. And it can be very powerful if you want innovative results.

So, it is to give freedom, to give people the space and empowering them to be brave and bold about their ideas. And then, it is great to have a lot of ideas, but being able to sift through them to make sure perhaps the ones that address the issue, address the problem have a chance for success. Are there things you do to foster that creativity when working with clients? What are some of the tips you can give people to bring their own creative genius?

So, the rules “suspend judgment, go for quantity, build on each other’s idea” are also really important when you diverge. That is why the “bad idea” can be the best ones. Because it may not be that but somebody may connect to something else, it may be the beginning of something. So that is really important. And trust each other. The thing with suspending judgment is like when you write and edit at the same time, it is (using) different parts of your brain. So, if you don’t give that part of your brain a chance to just do that, remove your censors for 5 minutes or an hour, then you just stay with the first ideas…. Sometimes I play and I use color coding when I do (and ideation). The first 20 ideas are the most obvious ones, they are top of mind so you need to say them but that they are not going to be the ideas that bring something new; so you need to get that out; you need to have everybody get that out; then you can push, then you can start making interesting connections. When I do an ideation, I would use techniques like (asking for) something they will never do or I may use a character and say “If you were Mickey Mouse, what would Mickey Mouse do to solve that problem?”. So that get people into a different mindset, out of their own biases and ways of thinking and silly things come out. I use visuals as well. I use pictures. “Look at this picture, what new ideas come up looking at this picture?”. We start making connections with things that we usually don’t connect (together) because there are really not a lot of new new ideas but by making new connections things happen that are interesting and that may be innovative for your industry. So, there may be something in another industry but you never thought of it: “I can learn something from the travel industry when I am in tech?”. Does that make sense?

Absolutely makes sense, think differently. Going back to Steve Job. Getting at it from a different angle, from a different perspective, that what you are saying?


So, I hear you talking about working with a group, doing this in a group dynamic. What are the ways that a leader can foster and give some space? I imagine I am sitting here with my AI group or my own staff and we are looking to brainstorm solutions to a problem. What are the things that a leader can do, and that is probably what you do, to invite the most creative fermentation of ideas to come together if possible?

I think the most important thing is modelling. If you work with a group and you have people with different levels in the company, and you have a leader or CEO, that person should be in that group without special power. His ideas should not have more weight than another person’s idea and just be clear about that with the group. Because I see (that) if that does not happen suddenly everybody cringes

Yes, and the fear factor is back as you were saying before, the lack of freedom will start to persist.

Yes, so that is really important for the group, that in that specific setting he is not a leader, he is just one of the people there. He may jump back to leading may be when we make a decision, he may be the end decision maker but for the rest of the process he needs to just be one of the group (participant).

Another part that is very important is championing. So the worst thing that can happen in a company is (this):  I do a three day training, everybody is excited , they come back and start coming up with new things and then they go to management and say “I have an idea” and the person says “ we cannot do that, it is never going to work…” That is the last time this person is going to come up with an idea. So, when people have enthusiasm about it, they come with (new) things, just find a way to say “this is interesting, tell me more…” It may not work and that is totally OK but people need to understand it. And if people fail, that is when people are going to watch out. If they fail and bad things happen to them, once again that is the end of innovation in an organization. So, if you fail there should be some ways to celebrate failures, do a “lessons learned” with our team, let’s talk about it, see it as a chance to learn, rather than something that failed and has bad consequences.

That is great, great advice. And I know you lead people through this process yourself. You talked about two- or three-day workshops. I think that is one of your offerings. Can you talk about how people work with you and how it is to engage you in this process?

All my work is custom because one of the principles of design thinking is to be user-centered and so I am client centered and every client has specific needs and constraints. Some people may have three days and we can do the work over three days; some people are busy and we can do a half day and then another half day and a program over six months so it is really different. But the typical way I work with clients is, I will do three things.

  1. One thing I can do is train a team, acknowledging that people do not know how to work together on innovation projects. I can help them with process and tools and, to your point before, I don’t talk a lot, it is really experiential because otherwise it does not work. So I may talk a little bit then you take a real example that belong that company, so it is real for them. So, you have that challenge, how do we go at understanding the problem, developing ideas, prototyping them and having some next steps. So, people can learn by doing in reality and just not only talking. That one thing I do.
  2. The other thing I do is training — which is great but it is not enough because people go back and they have the same job, the same pressure and what they learned is really hard to start implementing in their organization so I do coaching as well. Often it is team coaching, so every two weeks we talk about what has been working, what they have done and what their challenges are. Or if people are working on something and they are stuck, they can call me and we can do one-on-one coaching. It is really thinking about supporting the change because it is really a change in the way we are doing business.
  3. Then the last thing I do is, if people have a specific project and it is mostly for new products and services, they hire me to facilitate the process. So, I will take them, and it is usually a two to three-day workshop from problem to prototype, and even some prework before that. When they are looking at a new area, they are not really sure how to think about it, or it is a new segment they are not familiar with. And I will take them through the whole process so they can really focus on bringing their knowledge and I am here to make things smooth and have a process and be sure we get to the outcome they want to get.

Yes, to facilitate. You have some experience moving the project forward. How would people find you? You have an offering; do you want to introduce this to the audience?

My general website is www.strategicinsights.biz. There is a lot of other information you will find in the notes. And then for this group, I have a special offer I wanted to share. I attend a lot of conferences and talk to a lot of people in the innovation space, so I put together a list of nine questions that can really spark your thinking about innovation. So, in a way these questions can start an innovation audit for an organization. Have we thought about who should be in charge of innovation? Or do we have a clear protocol for financing our innovation projects? So, you can download it and once you have completed it, you can schedule a 30-minute discussion and I will be glad to review what you are doing, answer any question and then see if I can be of further help after that. https://www.strategicinsights.biz/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/nine-questions-download.pdf

That is a great offer, to take you through the beginning of the process and talk a little bit about how it can be built in and how you may be able to collaborate moving forward.

And those questions are really helpful for an organization, whether they are small or big, to really think about “have we thought about all these aspects of innovation?”. When we think about innovation, do we really understand what it means in term of people, process, finance, risk taking, elements that are really critical to be successful.

That is really interesting. As you say innovating in all different areas of a business, all areas where you execute. It may not just be a product or services or the way you work with clients but the way they are internally doing things, as of making sure…Innovating is moving forward, is that a good way to say it for an organization?

For me ultimately innovation is about change. If it is business as usual, we know how to do it, we are really good at it, it is not my expertise and usually the company does well. But when you are trying to change things and create something different, that is where it is often not so comfortable for the team members, they are somewhat scared because we do not know if we are going to succeed, we cannot say we are going to do the same thing we did last year because we don’t know, this is really where I can be helpful.

Wonderful. It is great to hear that. Now we start off line a little bit. You speak French . On va parler en français un petit peu

bien sûr

For the people here listening from around the world, we have some French listeners as well. Let’s give the high level here. Peut-être la même chose pour quelqu’un qui est en train de développer quelque chose.

Si vous êtes en train de développer quelque chose c’est important de comprendre d’abord quel problème vous essayer de résoudre, et être sûr que c’est le bon problème. Il y a beaucoup de problèmes que vous pouvez résoudre mais lequel a plus de sens. Pour cela c’est important de comprendre nos utilisateurs. Cela peut être les utilisateurs de votre produit si vous en avez déjà un, les futurs utilisateurs, ou les gens qui ne savent pas qu’ils vont être des utilisateurs mais qui ont un besoin de ce côté-là. Il faut faire de la recherche, de la recherche ethnographique, parler à des utilisateurs potentiels, allez les visiter, faire des photos, les observer, être d’accord sur le problème. Le deuxième chose c’est de ne pas s’arrêter après les premières 5-10 idées, mais être sûr que l’on a beaucoup d’idées, que l’on regarde les idées de différentes manières et choisir les idées et développer des prototypes pour commencer à essayer, tester et voir avec les utilisateurs ce qu’ils en pensent. Donc sortir de notre tête et de ce que l’on pense et regarder à être plus centré sur nos utilisateurs et ce qu’ils veulent et avoir un impact.

C’est bon ça. We have people listening from all around the world so I am sure it is fun for you to do this in your maternal language because you probably do not always get the opportunity. I understand that you work with clients throughout the world so we should not suggest it is not the case.

But I mostly work in English and I have to say my business French in no so good anymore because I have been in the U.S. for 25 years.

But there is a vernacular, a language there. For those who do not understand, I love how you say “get out of your head sometimes” in French. It is valuable advice for anybody, at certain times be sure you get out of your head, be sure you do things differently. That would probably translate quite well to any business owners throughout the world. I like to end these podcasts with a discussion about something we can leave (my listeners) with at the end of a podcast, something they can take from our conversation, that they can apply to their own business as they continue to evolve and innovate in their own rights. Is there something, Helene, you will consider to be a little nugget, a shiny diamond or perhaps a rough diamond that we can polish for a business owner who is listening right now?

Sure, a couple of thoughts there. The first one is that it can feel overwhelming sometimes and when it feels overwhelming, the tendency is not to do anything. So, my challenge to you is: it does not have to be big but try something, do one thing. At your next meeting, just say “let’s take 5 minutes and every idea is good. We will use post-its and put them on the wall and suspend judgment”. Let’s try something small and from that you can build confidence. If you are in an organization and you are not used to innovation, do not start with a big project. Start with a small project, test something with, let’s say with have an idea, test it with one user, for a week and sees how that goes. Then you learn something and this was interesting and it is much less overwhelming. So, start small, have a prototyping mentality, do things to learn, don’t try to be perfect which is a big change. I have a corporate background and in corporate you want to be perfect. Forget that.  Start small, try things.

The other thing is telling stories. Story telling is a very important part of design thinking. So, we go to this meeting and we have this big deck and we have everything in order. But you know what? It is not resonating. Because at the end of the day we are all human. So yes, you need the rational but you also need the emotional. And if you start your meeting saying “you know what? I met Jo yesterday. And Jo is very stuck because he has a very difficult legal challenge and he does not know who to talk to. Guess what? Now we have an idea that can help Jo.” Just that little thing, this idea about AI and legal, people are going to think about it differently. And then they may be willing to listen to your 20-page deck.

That is great. That just it. Even with our AI and legal example, from what you just described there, something smaller, let’s just bring it down to Jo, to one person, how they may be interacting and of course, the business can look at ways of solving that and moving forward. That’s really helpful.

Helene, I really appreciate your time today. You changed my thinking. Start small, tell a story, these are fantastic things to end on. I will think of a good little story to add into the show notes for this show and of course I will add all of the details and how to find you. Anything you want to add?

No, it just has been a pleasure talking to you and good luck to all of the listeners. And I want to say innovation is for everybody. It is not because you are a small business that it does not apply because if you do not innovate and change you are going to be dead.  The pace of change is so fast here that everybody needs to consider transforming and changing in the next year or two if you want to stay in business and even more if you want to grow.

Very well put, innovate or die. May be that is a little too drastic but innovate, innovate, innovate.

Helene thanks you so much for your time, for the French and English. For anybody who is looking to innovate or connect with Helene feel free to reach out. We will put everything in the show know. Thank you. Merci beaucoup

Merci et bonne Journee.