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Valerie Coulton

This is a conversation between Alistair Croll and Valerie Coulton via Tilt the Windmill. Valerie is an Innovation Catalyst at Schibsted Classified Media. She tells her story of moving to Barcelona and how her background in customer service has helped lead change in organizations. The excerpt is focused on the first 20 minutes, but hang on for more talk about disruption and lean analytics. Check out the full audio here.

What does it mean to be an Innovation Catalyst?

My role over the past year has been starting to bring in new ideas and question a lot about the way that we’re doing things today. And the way we’re thinking about things today.

So I would say that my role is to provoke people.

And also to bring them some tools, at this point are pretty well proven tools, that help how to cultivate a culture of innovation and how we do innovation that’s going to be meaningful for our users.

How do you help people change?

There is always a question about how far you can provoke people before you cross over into the rogue area. Over the past year, I’ve been trying to bring new ideas in - in a way that would be fairly easy for people to accept. Because I really want us to change the way that we’re working.

So I’ve been trying to find the right ways in with people. Which means putting Design Thinking into practice and trying to get a lot of empathy with everyone in the company. Trying to understand what their real challenges and problems are - sort of considering them as my users and customers.

Trying to get empathy with them, so I know what kind of provocation is going to be appealing to them. And sort of take them on a journey that’s going to work.

Because I think if I dropped in special agent style with a mission to radically change everything in a day - I don’t think that would of worked very well.

How did you end up in Barcelona?

I’m originally from Berkeley and I was living in Oakland. My husband and I thought it would be fun to come to Barcelona for a year.

You know just take off from our jobs. We’re both writers in the off-hours. We thought it would be so cool to be in Barcelona and be able to travel around Europe and write. And not work.

Soon after we came here, we thought it would be cool to start working here. So we started teaching and this eventually led to me working for InfoJobs, which is one of Schibsted’s sites in Spain.

What do you need for innovation?

I think there is a Wizard of Oz trinity for innovation. You need a heart, a brain, and courage.

Delighting Customers

I have a crazy background. I started out in theater. Then I became a small business manager in the Bay area. And I worked in the speciality food industry. Also, coffee and tea.

So I’ve done a lot of small business management and customer service stuff in the past. I was always trying to learn how to delight customers. And how to manage people towards that ideal of servant leadership.

How can we serve people in a way that is delightful for them and meaningful and rewarding for ourselves. That’s been the through line into everything I’ve done.

Servant Leadership

It’s about having service at the heart of what you’re doing. And being able to lead in a way that results in serving others. For me, this has always been a powerful concept.

For example, if I’m leading a team and we have customers or end users - the service I give to the team has to be on the same level of what I’m expecting them to give to our users and customers.

It’s the idea of leading - people, or in a market, or with a product - towards the aim of serving others.

I found when I worked more directly in customer service - I found this to be a powerful concept. Because I was always working with very bright, young people who usually were at university - going to Cal or other universities in the Bay area - they’re really smart. And they’re having a job in a cafe or what have you, and they’re serving others.

For them, it was not always easy to understand that service is a really high profession or high calling. In fact, whenever you’re making something for someone else - ideally you’re trying to get them to this moment of delight or gratitude or appreciation or whatever it is - you’re trying to create for them.

It’s not a question of being a servant. It’s embracing service as a really high human calling.

This idea is taking over the world. When I see Airbnb or Uber or TaskRabbit - so many concepts that revolve around a human exchange of people trying to help others or do something for others or trying to create an amazing experience for other people.

The fact that it’s so transparent now. I’ve got a friend, who is a episcopal minister. And I went to the website of the church of where he’s a minister - they actually had a page where all of his sermons were published. The congregation could go there and they were actually rating each sermon.

This is amazing. The desire to serve and this offline economy of human interactions is now being facilitated by the online ecosystem, which enables us constantly improve the way that we conceptualize the way we’re serving others or creating great experiences for others or how you ever you want to say it.

Now we can have so much data about that. We can be constantly improving, constantly getting feedback - to me it’s really fantastic.

But it’s all going back to this one simple concept.

Expectations for Customers

The fact there is a platform now to do more for customers, to do more for users - does make it a necessity. I think all of our expectations are going up.

I wouldn’t suggest that every successful business has this warm and fuzzy, hard-felt desire to make people happy. I wouldn’t say that.

However, if you don’t somehow feel that they take some interest in at least your satisfaction or in your comfort, and if not your delight, then I think they’re in danger.

I would say companies that are just transactional, that are at this point just relying on things like efficiency, are probably going to be missing something in the future.


And this one is for Alistair - Unless your a ballerina stop pivoting #bumpersticker

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