8 Big Lessons From 30 Years Of Breakthrough Consumer Innovation

Shekhar Mitra is a former SVP focused on research and development for Proctor & Gamble. When he speaks, entrepreneurs should listen.

8 Big Lessons From 30 Years Of Breakthrough Consumer Innovation
[Image: Flickr user Christian]

Be careful. It’s contagious. The energy that emanates from someone doing (living) what they love may drive you to want to seek that “thing” out for yourself or, if you have already found it, to pursue it yet more relentlessly.


Shekhar Mitra found it and lives it. Formerly the SVP in charge of research and development for Proctor & Gamble’s Salon Professional and Prestige division, this PhD has been innovating professionally for more than 30 years, has more than 50 patents to his name, was instrumental in establishing P&G innovation hubs around the world, and is behind many of P&G’s most breakthrough consumer product innovations (from Crest Whitestrips to Aleve).

We are thrilled he agreed to be the first guest on our new “Outthinkers” video series. Watch the full 19-minute episode below, or pick out the clips that speak to you now. What you will see is a man so passionate about his work that he continues it into retirement.

Whether you’re looking to connect with work that speaks to you or for tangible, proven tools for driving breakthrough innovation, Mitra has answers. Here are the key takeaways:


Start with inspiration, not need.

Most innovation approaches I have heard about start by identifying a need–conducting some customer insight and finding a frustration. But Mitra doesn’t speak of needs. He spoke of inspiration and possibility when he shared the story of how his team developed Crest Whitestrips. Need and possibility are fundamentally different. Need emerges when you desire something but can’t get it. But how different an experience is it when something you didn’t know existed suddenly becomes possible? That seems a far stronger space to innovate.

Break silos by looking for possibilities.

Most technologists–as Mitra is–start with the technology and ask, “Where can this be useful?” But Mitra’s success has come from approaching innovation from the other way around: Start with the inspiration, then scour the world (or at least the company) to find technologies that might help us help customers realize the possibility. In developing Whitestrips, for example, Mitra’s team found useful technology in unexpected places (e.g., the Whitestrips team found useful knowledge from P&G’s laundry products and baby diapers). According to Mitra, the answer is to “empower the team to look for possibilities.”

Enroll stakeholders by focusing on who we all care about: the consumer.

If we want to cause change at scale, we will need stakeholder support. Why do it alone, even if we could? The key, says Mitra, is to focus on someone we all care about–the consumer. By starting with a vision of what you can do for them, you will naturally build enthusiastic support for what you are pursuing.


The key to breakthrough consumer product innovation

One project Mitra is most passionately involved in now is Orapup, a tongue brush for dogs that helps treat bad breath. He describes this venture as a potential breakthrough, not because it treats bad breath but because it enables a powerful bonding experience between owner and pet. “That’s what breakthrough consumer product innovation is,” he says.

Remember what matters.

Most innovation and strategy consulting firms I know brag about their impact in numerical terms: new products, new revenue, value created. Mitra is driven instead by “delight[ing] the consumer with breakthrough innovation.” Such ends are consistent with the means of generating new products, revenue, and value, but by remembering why such things are important can keep us focused on what matters.

Find balance through family and meditation.

If you love what you do and want to do it for a long time, you will need to find balance. Mitra offers us two ways to achieve this. First, share the balance with your family. Mitra’s wife has played a critical role in creating balance for their family as he traveled and worked hard in a global role. I write this from San Diego on a Sunday after delivering a speech, comforted that my wife (who also works long hours) is now with the kids letting them know they are loved. Second, Mitra meditates.


Believe . . . it’s contagious.

Meditation will help you believe in yourself. Your people will believe and follow you to the extent they sense you believe as well.

Ask the questions that will help you make a difference.

Mitra narrowly escaped an airplane hijacking and this taught him the importance of stopping and “smelling the roses” and to think about the impact you are having on the world. Carry always in mind the impact you have.

Where breakthroughs come from: partnership.

As companies grow, they create systems and processes. These are important but also limit flexibility. The way out of this dilemma is for small, flexible companies to partner with large ones who scale inventions into a global market.


There we have choice insights distilled from 30 years of real, on-the-frontline innovation experience. Don’t wait. We can summarize his key insights into a six-step innovation process. Apply it now!

  1. First, find an inspiration (not a need).
  2. Seek technologies to fulfill this inspiration.
  3. Gather stakeholders around your common goal: delighting the consumer.
  4. Take the technology and stakeholders to meet an emotional moment for your consumer.
  5. Create balance so you can go all the way.
  6. Keep believing.

About the author

Author of Outthink the Competition business strategy keynote speaker and CEO of Outthinker, a strategic innovation firm, Kaihan Krippendorff teaches executives, managers and business owners how to seize opportunities others ignore, unlock innovation, and build strategic thinking skills. Companies such as Microsoft, Citigroup, and Johnson & Johnson have successfully implemented Kaihan’s approach because their executive leadership sees the value of his innovative technique. Kaihan has delivered business strategy keynote speeches for organizations such as Motorola, Schering‐Plough, Colgate‐Palmolive, Fortune Magazine, Harvard Business Review, the Society of Human Resource Managers, the Entrepreneurs Organization, and The Asia Society


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