“Now, as you know from listening to this here podcast, Chris Denson really loves innovation.” This line opens every episode of the Innovation Crush podcast hosted by Chris Denson, a self-proclaimed innovation fanatic and expert, global marketer, Director of Omnicom Media Group’s Ignition Factory, author, and speaker. Denson has built a bustling career off creativity, ingenuity, successful collaboration, and seeking out new and exciting ideas that will change the world. Denson stopped by Loeb NYC to discuss his book, the secrets of his success, his journey from stand-up to business, the magic of the creative process, and much more.
This post centers on the key takeaways from Chris Denson’s wildly informative and entertaining interview with Katie Loeb, Director of Strategy and Innovation, as well as on his life as an exciting and cutting-edge creative. The key points include:
It’s okay to bomb: The importance of trying and trying and then trying again. Denson discusses his early experiences in stand-up comedy and how that helped erase the fear of failure.
Thinking outside and all around the box: How diversity of thought enhances the creative process and ensures that a finished product has more staying power.
Don’t be afraid to dive in: Denson urges innovators to fully immerse themselves in whatever field they pursue in order to enhance the quality of services or products.
Always empathy: Empathy is a matter of business. Empathy is about playing both roles of innovator and consumer. (He has this approach in common with Dr. Helen Rothberg).
Knowledge is power: The wealth of knowledge knows no limits. Know enough to be dangerous. Know enough to have intelligent conversations and be open to learning more.
Denson’s book is titled “Crushing the Box, 10 Essential Rules for Breaking Essential Rules.” The book includes such chapters as “Kick Some Balls,” “Ruin Everything,” and “Eat Your Brain,” a far cry from traditional snippets of advice one would expect to find inside a fortune cookie promising a future of success. Denson wants to step way outside of the box, where innovation, collaboration, and creativity intersect and create opportunities for breakthroughs. “Crushing the Box” challenges the limitations of rules and encourages readers to not fear going against the grain in order to pursue their dreams.
Meet the Man Behind the Mission
Chris Denson was born in Detroit, Michigan to Christine Denson, a school teacher, and John Denson, a theologian. Denson was an active student at his high school in Lathrup Village, Michigan. He took part in the marching band, swim team, track and field, and golf. He later went on to attend Michigan State University where he dabbled in martial arts and comedy as he earned a degree in packaging engineering. His early enthusiasm and curiosity for life would follow him throughout his career and lead him on a varied and colorful journey through business, stopping off—if only briefly—at Loeb NYC along the way for our regular Speaker Series.
From Comedy to Business
Denson first got into comedy while still a student at Michigan State. He describes his first stand-up experience much like being tossed into water without knowing how to swim. His first time doing stand-up was an audition to open for a Cedric the Entertainer show on campus – a gig he landed. This led him to pursue performing as many shows as possible, winning comedy competitions, and eventually moving to Los Angeles after he realized engineering was not for him. Denson’s experience in the entertainment industry goes far beyond the comedy stage alone. He has worked both on screen and behind the scenes for Paramount, BET, Playboy Television, Machinima, the American Film Institute’s Digital Content Lab, and has served on advisory boards for the likes of SXSW and Pluto TV.
Denson sees stand-up comedy as the pursuit of universal life truths delivered with a unique perspective. He notes the progression of his comedy style, moving away from first doing what he thought was funny to incorporating more about his personal life and finding humor in the otherwise mundane. The lessons learned from doing stand-up have evidently carried over into Denson’s successful transition into business, a venture that is still very much alive and growing. When discussing the nature of stand-up, he notes that the entire operation is a “you-endeavour.” Once you are up on stage, all that you have is yourself, your personality, and your perspective. The spotlight is narrow. He offers a protracted, thoughtful “It’s…literally…just you.” Perhaps Denson’s ability to hold his own in a multitude of fields stems from first learning how to be comfortable on stage with only himself as a resource.
Diversity of Thought
The first chapter Denson and Loeb discuss is “Put Women in Their Place,” a title he calls a double entendre mixed with a little bit of intended shock value. Denson’s call for a more level playing field in business involves erasing unconscious bias that seems to perpetuate discrimination. He discusses working with such esteemed women in business like Linda Boff (CMO at GE for the last fourteen years) without expecting an applause for encouraging diversity in a male-dominated field. For Denson, diversity should be natural, easy, expected, and absolutely essential for success.
What Denson calls “diversity of thought” is the inclusion of all different perspectives. He wants a TV writer, a photographer, and a scientist all in one brainstorming room in order to bring all different kinds of experiences, points of view, attributes, and skills together. He calls it the spirit of curiosity. For Denson, the creative process is dynamic, fruitful, nimble, and requires voices other than one’s own so as to avoid a stagnant echo chamber of one’s own thoughts. Innovation is about exploring outside the box, and then “Crushing” it after.
Denson also practices what he preaches. He discusses working with and learning from the likes of Dan Goods (Visual Strategist for NASA) and Bruce Duncan (a psychologist who works with the sentient robot BINA48). He has interviewed hundreds of innovators on Innovation Crush, including FUBU owner and Shark Tank investor Daymond John, writer, and producer Dan Harmon, musician Damian Kulash, entrepreneur Krizstina Holly, skateboarder Rob Dyrdek, and rapper Chamillionaire. For Denson, the pursuit of knowledge is endless.
Swim Like an Otter
Another key factor to Denson’s success is empathy. The chapter, “Swim Like an Otter,” was inspired by NASA artist’s Dan Goods’ experience in art school. One day, an art professor told Goods to draw a picture of an otter. He then told the young artist to meet him at the pool the next day. When Goods arrived, the professor said “now get in the water and swim like one.” How does this relate to business? For Denson, empathy is essential to success. He encourages innovators and marketers to strive for the deepest sense of empathy in order to provide quality services or products. “Go there. Be a part of the community,” he urges. Swimming like an otter is about fully immersing oneself in the pursuit at hand, with empathy always the Northstar.
Sometimes swimming like an otter requires less action and more observation. He discusses the business strategy of Starbucks, a brand name that has become almost synonymous with coffee itself. Starbucks incorporates an eleven week period in which C-level executives go to different stores, travel the world, and observe the ways in which different demographics experience the massive coffee chain at the ground level. Empathy is a matter of business. Denson stresses the importance of narrowing in on the day-to-day experience of a company, service, or product. He says that if one works for Nascar, go to the races. Stand in the lines. Experience the debris flying off the track. He urges: “Discover pain points that you can actually solve for that specific group.” Empathy in business is about playing both roles of innovator and consumer.
Know Enough to be Dangerous
Another role that his book encourages is that of a mercenary. The chapter, “Become a Mercenary,” is inspired by the quote “know enough to be dangerous.” Denson credits this mindset for his ability to interact with experts in their fields (the Linda Boffs and Bruce Duncans of the world) without necessarily being an expert himself. Denson speaks of an acrobatic ability to confidently mingle in various different fields with something of an omnipotent command over the conversation. Perhaps confidence comes from an undying willingness to learn, the spirit of curiosity that motivates much of his work.
Should we all become generalists? Denson says no. “Knowing enough to be dangerous” is about being able to have intelligent conversations that open the door for more potential collaboration and learning. For Denson, an innovator does not need to be a psychologist, an astrophysicist, an expert coder, and world-renowned pianist all rolled into one. Curiosity and the willingness to learn along the way will grant one access to a wealth of knowledge. Denson wants to expand the scope of experience, both in business and beyond.
Finally, Denson leaves Loeb NYC with a story of one of his most impressive friends, one who lives with severe disabilities. He lists his friend’s various impressive accomplishments: he’s a documentarian, has a PhD from Stanford, and was an ambassador for President Obama for persons with disabilities. Denson speaks of the extensive trips he has taken with his friend in Kenya and notes the hardships his friend encounters on a day-to-day basis. However, his friend does not quit, “all because he wants to make the world a better place for people like him.” Empathy for others is what motivates such incredible efforts. Denson calls it working with your “heart first.”
So why should we break the rules? For Chris Denson, breaking the rules allows for such incredible breakthroughs that his friend exhibits. As his book states, breaking the rules is how Grace Hopper invented the first computer; how George Lucas brought Star Wars to life; how Chris Denson became an innovative extraordinaire.
Early in the interview, Denson jokes that his mother had always envisioned her son walking to work with a briefcase and a three-piece suit. Denson thought outside the box – and then crushed it.