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10 Questions With Coca-Cola's Innovation Guru

By:  Jay Moye Oct 16, 2012
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10 Questions With David Butler

David Butler, Coca-Cola’s VP of innovation, said the company is on a mission to unleash 100,000 more entrepreneurs around the world by partnering with organizations like UP Global.

David Butler is Coca-Cola’s vice president of innovation. Every day it’s his job to create the systems, process and relationships necessary for the company to produce as much value as possible through innovation. He is also a self-proclaimed “systems geek,” surfer and natural optimist.

1. As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Believe it or not, I wanted to be a dentist. That is, until I took a graphic design class in high school, which changed everything. I immediately knew I wanted to be a designer; it gave me a lot of clarity around how I saw the future. At the encouragement of my parents, I interned with several types of design firms to learn more about design — from architecture to product development to engineering to interior design. I majored in mass communications in college, but studied economics, media, art, sociology and even meteorology. I didn’t know it at the time, but this introduced me to holistic “systems thinking” and a broad approach to design and solving problems.

I've since been an art director, designer, creative director, adjunct professor, director, brand strategist, business consultant and founder of a few small startups. I’m not exactly sure what I am, but I love my job … which I think is really the point.

2. What was your first job, and what did you learn from it?

My first “real job” out of college was as an art director for an advertising agency. I worked there for about a year and then got fired, which really took me off-guard. Basically, the agency lost the account I was assigned to, and they had to let me go. This taught me a lot about how a business stays in business. You have to do a great job of keeping your current customers happy while always building a pipeline of new customers. I also learned that the nature of business is very dynamic, and that you can never take anything for granted. Looking back, getting fired from my first job was the best thing that could have happened to me because I learned many important lessons really early in my career.

3. Most Coca-Cola associates know you for leading global design. You've referred to designers as "natural optimists." Can you expand a bit?

Designers don’t see problems as problems. We see problems as opportunities to make something better … we’re hard-wired that way. Today’s world is more connected and complicated than ever before. The types of issues we’re faced with have moved beyond complicated to what some call “wicked problems” — multidimensional, nonlinear challenges like obesity, water scarcity, global warming and the international debt crisis. We can’t really solve these problems; we can only chip away at them. They require all of us to “think like designers” with a new level of optimism as we design solutions for a dynamic and uncertain world.

4. We hear a lot about the rise of the creative class. Can you touch on the growing importance of creativity and "right-brain thinking" in the business world?

Much of our business is predictable. Our core business is driven for the most part by formulas, analytics and certainty. But our world and many of the rules of business are changing. Ian Bremmer says it best in his new book: “We have entered a period of transition from the world we know toward one we can’t yet map.”

When we look toward 2020, the predictable, formulated and analytical world we’ve known and operated in for so long is changing. In order to survive and hopefully thrive, we must design for adaptability. And this requires different skills. For example, being able to integrate seemingly unrelated things is a skill, as is using empathy to design solutions that can adapt to different user needs, or using systems thinking to understand how to create shared value. Some people call these examples of right-brain thinking or design thinking. Others call them creative skills. I call them survival skills. But no matter what we call them, we all need to build our competency in these areas to create more adaptability for our business.

5. What inspires you creatively?

When people ask me this question, my answer always throws them a bit. To be honest, I’m a systems geek. I love learning and thinking about all types of systems, from simple to complex. The ones that inspire me the most are the complex ecosystems found in nature — from black holes in space to bee colonies. All of these are very complex systems, and I love trying to understand how they were designed.

6. You and your wife have three young daughters. Ever feel outnumbered?

Every day! In fact, we recently got a new puppy — you guessed it, a girl. We named her Pickle. I married a strong woman, and I’m quite proud and thankful for the privilege to help raise three girls. Girls will shape our future. A friend at Nike recently sent me this short video they created on the “girl effect,” which really hit home for me.

7. Outside of work, what are your hobbies? How do you recharge?

I rarely have time for much besides work and family. But when I do have time, I love to read. I read several books at a time, which creates different connections for me. And on the rare occasion I have a few days to myself, I usually head to the beach to go surfing. I grew up surfing and still love to go any chance I can get. My wife actually just gave me a skateboard, which I also used to do a long time ago.

I recharge in nature. If I ever need a quick recharge at the office, I just head outside and take a quick walk. I also love to go to the mountains to hike with my family or just chill out.

8. Your job takes you all around the world. Do you have a favorite place you've visited?

Tokyo, hands-down. I love everything I’ve ever learned or experienced about Japanese culture, and the friends I’ve made at Coca-Cola Japan. For me, Tokyo is so forward-thinking; it seems a few years ahead of the rest of the world. As soon as you land, everything seems so far forward, which is refreshing to me. I also love the ancient traditions of Japanese culture. I’ve never lived there and don’t speak the language, but for some reason Tokyo always feels like home when I visit.

9. What's the best advice you've ever received?

Be clear. Someone once told me that leaders often find themselves in times of uncertainty where they don’t know how to move forward. Bad leaders allow themselves to become paralyzed, and good leaders create clarity to keep everyone moving forward. I always try to be clear on what I call “doing the next right thing,” even if I’m not positive where we’re going.

10. How would you describe your leadership style? Also, you seem like such a nice guy. What ruffles your feathers?

I try to do three things: Focus on strengths, lead by example, and let the work speak for itself. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. I feel like we should always play to our strengths, so I hire people who are stronger at the things I’m weak in. I also never ask anyone to do something I wouldn’t do myself, or at least understand it enough to know what I’m asking them to do. And as far as work goes, I feel like everyone wants to work on things that are purposeful, challenging and make an impact. When that’s the case, most people will stretch themselves to do great things — beyond what they could imagine. I know this is true for me, and I believe it’s true for everyone.

I’m all about efficiency at work. I love short meetings, short emails, one-page “presentations” and headline summaries. What ruffles my feathers are the opposite. But I also know that everyone is different, and that the way I like to work isn’t for everyone. So I ask my team to give me the headlines first and let me ask for more detail versus the other way around.