[00:00:00] Maggie Chui: Hi, everyone. Welcome to the Asian Hustle Network podcast. Today, we have a very special guest with us. His name is Leo Chan. Leo was sought after by major companies and with over 20 years of experience in the world of innovation and creativity, Leo has inspired and coached innovators with his magical ability to unleash innovative ideas and practices that guide leaders to stay ahead of the competition.
[00:00:24] Leo is the Founder of Abound Innovation, Inc., former Senior Innovation Lead at Chick-fil-A, and former innovator at State Farm Insurance. He’s harnessed his unique skill sets as an expert in innovation and creativity to both identify and raise future innovators. Leo understands that a culture that empowers and trains innovators can create a thriving atmosphere for dynamic work with exponential impact. Leo lives in Toronto, Canada, and holds an AB degree in MTS. He’s a licensed trainer of Lego Serious Play, methods, and a certified Lego Serious Play facilitator. Leo, welcome to the show.
[00:01:01] Leo Chan: Thanks, Maggie. It’s wonderful to be here. I’m excited to be here today.
[00:01:05] Maggie Chui: We’re very excited to listen to your story today. Leo, tell us, what was your upbringing like? Where were you born and raised? Just tell us a little bit about your childhood.
[00:01:14] Leo Chan: I was born in California but my family moved me to Canada when I was one. I grew up actually in a- it’s interesting. I’m Chinese. I grew up in a very Caucasian kind of city so I grew up as a minority.
[00:01:30] Then Toronto, if you don’t know Toronto, it’s a very diverse city but there’s a lot of Asians here so I became a majority. This is kind of interesting in my story. Just sort of being a minority, the majority of the minority, and all these kinds of stuff are been interesting.
[00:01:43] I grew up watching Star Trek, so I’ve always been curious about the future, loving technology, and just thinking it’s a really interesting thing. I’ve always had this- I don’t know. I think Star Trek is very inspirational because they’ve created ideas and possibilities that we didn’t consider.
[00:02:01] I think that honestly, that has a lot to do with where I am today about being in a role that’s around creating the future. I thank Star Trek for getting me to where I am today.
[00:02:13] Maggie Chui: Oh, wow. That’s amazing. I haven’t watched Star Trek, so maybe I should jump on it and pick up on some innovative skill sets.
[00:02:20] Leo Chan: It is. The intro actually for Star Trek, I think it’s quite inspirational because it’s like going boldly into the future where no one’s gone before and exploring a new world and possibilities. I mean, that’s exactly what innovation’s all about.
[00:02:32] Maggie Chui: Right. Absolutely.
[00:02:33] Leo Chan: Watch Star Trek. Go watch Star Trek.
[00:02:35] Maggie Chui: Yeah, I definitely will.
[00:02:37] As a child, did you always know that you were going to become an entrepreneur? Because I feel like some people do have that you know, kind of creativity. They know exactly that they’re going to be an entrepreneur at a young age, but some people don’t know that, and they just kind of transition into their way to becoming an entrepreneur. What was it like for you?
[00:02:59] Leo Chan: No. I didn’t ever think I’d be an entrepreneur, ever. I guess in some ways, my dad was because he’s a family doctor. He had his practice so technically, he was an entrepreneur but I think he had a safer job.
[00:03:13] Actually, I didn’t even know what I wanted to do when I was thinking about university. I grew up when the internet became a thing so I was fascinated with websites and just the internet as a whole. I thought I’d enter into some sort of thing with computers.
[00:03:29] That’s kind of what I thought, but I fell in love with the front side of the websites, the actual design, the graphic design, and all that stuff. I had a long shot where I applied for art school, at design school, and they let me come in. I was successfully placed in design school which is a kind of uncommon thing for an Asian because there’s a stereotype that art doesn’t make money and all that kind of stuff.
[00:03:55] My dad being a doctor, oddly enough, didn’t ask me to follow in his footsteps or tell me to go into a traditional Asian role, which is like, “Be a doctor or an accountant.” Whatever that makes lots of money. He’s just like, “Sure. Do whatever you want to do.” I ended up in design, of all places, and I enjoyed the creative stuff of it.
[00:04:16] I found that I enjoyed all the dreaming of what could be and then creating something visually of how that could be represented. I feel like I didn’t know what I wanted to do but I just explored what I enjoyed doing and that led me to where I am today. It was just sort of following my passion around and ended up being an entrepreneur.
[00:04:39] Maggie Chui: Do you think it’s because your father knew how hard it was going to be, that’s why he didn’t want you to follow in his footsteps. Because I feel like a lot of immigrant parents tell us, “Become a doctor. Become a lawyer.”
[00:04:50] Oftentimes, they haven’t gone through that same route as well so they don’t know what that experience is like. We come to realize, if we do follow what our parents wanted us to do, we’re not passionate about it. It doesn’t make us happy. They don’t understand it.
[00:05:06] Do you think it’s because your father probably knew how hard it was going to be and that’s why he didn’t force you into that same route?
[00:05:14] Leo Chan: No. I don’t think he- we just never talked about it. He was pretty open-minded about whatever I wanted to do, which I think is cool because like a lot of my Asian friends, they’re all doctors.
[00:05:24] I think they were suddenly nudged into it. Even my next-door neighbor wanted to go to art school. She doesn’t want to be a teacher. She knew I was on the creative side so we had these long conversations in our driveway.
[00:05:42] She wanted to be an artist, but her dad forced her to become a teacher because he’s like, “There’s no money in arts.” I remember one day, we were standing on her driveway having this conversation and I was asking, “Well, how’s it going?” She was miserable. She was so miserable. I felt so sad that here, I was the example that she wanted and here she was, the example she didn’t want, but her dad just couldn’t see that the creative arts could make money.
[00:06:05] She was a great artist too. I think I was just really fortunate that my dad was open-minded about that and he just let me do whatever. He just said, “Yeah. Do whatever you want to do, Leo.” And didn’t force me to get a job that makes lots of money per se.
[00:06:19] The fact is, at the time, there wasn’t a lot of money in it. It was true, but he was like, “Hey if that’s what you want to do, go for it.” I’m very thankful that he was like that.
[00:06:29] Maggie Chui: I loved that. That’s very rare for Asian families and Asian parents. For your parents to just encourage you to do whatever you want to do, I would say you had a very unique experience.
[00:06:42] Leo Chan: Honestly, he has no idea what I will do today. He’s like, “I look at your stuff online.” I’m like, “It’s okay.”
[00:06:49] Maggie Chui: That’s amazing. You went from a graphic designer and an art director to the Founder of Abound Innovation.
[00:06:58] Leo Chan: Yeah.
[00:06:58] Maggie Chui: You’re a graphic designer by trade, working at several different companies as a graphic designer and as an art director, and then you started as a Graphic Design Specialist at State Farm. How did you move your way up to become a senior innovation analyst? What was that transition like?
[00:07:15] Leo Chan: What I found out about myself is I enjoyed the creative stuff. I enjoyed going back to Star Trek, creating the future, thinking of new possibilities, and all that. I found that that was really what I liked to do. I think I was kind of- it’s like the path led itself in some ways like I was at State Farm, I was doing design, then there was a restructure.
[00:07:35] Two years into the world, there’s a restructure and they were like, “Hey, we’ll move our best talent to our headquarters in the US. I’m like, “Okay, sure.” I threw my name in the hat and because I was born in the States, I think that probably helped with me getting the role.
[00:07:49] They moved me down to the US and the year I moved, which was 2012, State Farm launched their State Farm Innovation team. It was happenstance. I moved in January of 2012 and in March of 2012, I was at lunch and learning. I was like, “What’s this innovation thing?” because I don’t even think I knew what the word meant. I just thought it sounded interesting.
[00:08:08] I go to this lunch and learn and they’re like, “We’re creating the future, like creating new products and services for our company. You can dream with us. Hopefully these things go to market.” and I was like, “I have to join this.” because I found that this department then infused my love for creativity and future thinking with technology, execution, and business.
[00:08:30] It was like the smash of everything that I liked. So I’m like, “I am coming over whether you want me or not.” I told my boss I was interested in this department and she had a colleague that worked in State Farm Innovation and she’s like, “I can make a connection.”
[00:08:47] What I did was I used my design background and I’m like, “I can design stuff for you, guys.” Like, “When you’re going to prototype, when you want visualizations of your ideas, how are people going to understand what that is?” I’m like, “Let me help be the designer for you, absolutely free.”
[00:09:00] And they’re like, “Great.” I got my foot in the door by using my design background. Anyway, I used my design back and they got to know me, but then, what was interesting was when I came to the interview, there was this book. There’s a book and I would recommend anybody to read this, it’s called The Innovator’s DNA.
[00:09:18] It talks about the five characteristics of innovators. They did all this research on top innovators around the world and they found that there were these certain characteristics of them that were true. As I read the book, I thought I was reading about myself. I’m like, “I do this. That’s me.”
[00:09:35] When I went into my interview, I was like, “You know, you could try to hire someone and teach them these skills, or you can hire me right now and I’m already doing them. It’s up to you.” but I’m like, “I don’t have to become something that you want. As a designer, I already think like this.”
[00:09:49] It was a pretty compelling narrative for them. I got to join the State Farm Innovation organization. That’s how I transitioned from design into an innovation but I would tell you that there are a lot of things that are honestly the same. The thinking is the same, the way I look at the world, and all that stuff. It’s honestly all based on, in my opinion, design.
[00:10:09] Maggie Chui: Wow. That’s amazing. It’s crazy to think that you made that transition. I can’t even imagine what went into that because it was so new for State Farm. It was completely new. You pretty much built the foundation for the innovation department at State Farm.
[00:10:25] What were some of the things that you did at State Farm to help come up with these creative ideas and innovations?
[00:10:34] Leo Chan: We were tasked with coming up with new product ideas and services. I also whittled my way onto another team at State Farm so I was like, “Let me just get my foot in the door, and then I’m going to try to strategically position myself to get onto the team I want to be on.”
[00:10:48] I wanted to be on the- it was called strategic foresight and it was about transportation, like “What’s the future of transportation?” Back then it was like, “Autonomous vehicles. How does that impact insurance?”
[00:10:58] It was thinking about like, “What are the disruptors that may come to the organization in the future, and what are ideas right now that we can consider now?” because the way you prepare for the future is to start today and create the narrative to get you there. It’s not waiting for it to happen.
[00:11:14] It’s being proactive. It was really like I was such a geeked-out person on technology and cars that I was always watching. I was reading articles on the auto blog. I did this for fun in my spare time. When it finally matched what my work was, I’m already thinking about it anyway.
[00:11:30] Now I can think about how we could do this for the company. I thought about it like, “Okay. What does it look like? We need to do more research on autonomous vehicles. We need to create partnerships with universities and we have to do studies and all these things. What ideas would surface if this autonomous vehicle future happened?
[00:11:48] We’re not even there yet but what would happen? I got to dream with others on my team about what that could look like then create ideas and see if there were pinpoints that we could anticipate that the future customer would have. I was able to patent some of these ideas through State Farm, which was fun around what this could look like. Like in the future, maybe cars should be like credit cards, right?
[00:12:09] Your car pulls up to something and then maybe it’s a payment device. Those kinds of things. Things that hadn’t happened yet, but we could see them happening with some data. It was really interesting to be part of that and just to dream about the future. I moved from Toronto which is a big city to a small town in the US.
[00:12:30] It’s just not a city that has a lot of things going on so I realized I fell in love with innovation and that was what I wanted to do but I wasn’t in love with where I lived. I started looking around even though I was really happy in my role. Chick-fil-A corporate had a position where they were like, “Instead of you creating innovation for us, we want somebody to make our innovation culture better.”
[00:12:52] And I was like, “That sounds cool. I’d love to step into that.” Because I love helping people be innovative and I love helping, training people, and equipping them with new skill sets, I said, “That sounds cool.” I raised my hand, posted, I got the job, and they moved me to Atlanta.
[00:13:08] Maggie Chui: Wow. Amazing. I think there is a rule of thumb here. It was like, “If you want to be creative, you constantly have to learn.” You constantly have to be curious and I think that’s what I got from what you just said. You were already interested in what State Farm was trying to do and you were interested in autonomous vehicles.
[00:13:30] I think the most important thing is that you are constantly learning, you’re constantly curious, and you constantly want to just hone in and adopt new skills. That’s the catalyst to becoming an innovator. I think it’s amazing how you started being a consultant at Chick-fil-A.
[00:13:48] I understand that you were the catalyst for a thriving culture of innovation at Chick-fil-A. I want to know as well, what were some of the things that you did at Chick-fil-A to help them stay ahead of their competition?
[00:14:00] Leo Chan: The job description was cool. They’re like, “We want to level up our innovation practice.”
[00:14:06] If we’re at one point or right now, what would 2.0 look like? What’s the next step in the journey? What does evolution look like? I think because I have a design background now. Here at this point, I’ve had four years at State Farm Innovation. I’ve seen practice in place.
[00:14:22] I just felt like I don’t know how I dare to think this because it’s not like I had done it before but I’m like I think I could dream up a new feature for Chick-fil-A. You’re right when you talk about curiosity and learning.
[00:14:36] Chick-fil-A has an innovation center. It’s a 30,000-square-foot facility. The facility’s huge and it’s called “Hatch”. It’s Chick-fil-A’s innovation center. As a new person, I walked in and I was like, “This is a fascinating place. I’ve never seen such a dedicated commitment to innovation in any organization.”
[00:14:51] It’s a warehouse for innovation but what was interesting at the time was I didn’t see a lot of people in the space. I was curious. So I was like, “I wonder why that is.” Because I just came from an organization, State Farm, where if space wasn’t being utilized, the ad services team would put cubicles and put lots of people there.
[00:15:09] This space was like an anomaly from that background so I was like, “Why are there not so many people here?” I asked questions, I did my research, and I started kind of understanding the reasons why because that building had moved recently. It was harder to find. There were limited use cases while you would go. One day I was like- and I use this in some of the workshops that I have.
[00:15:31] I thought, “I think there’s a better way to incentivize or entice people to come to this place because to me, innovation is done through people. If I’m not seeing people here and it’s the innovation center, then at least as a new perspective, what innovation is happening? I just wanted to answer that question for myself.
[00:15:50] I did all this research and then I came up with a design, a new design for the innovation center, and I’ve never done this before. I just thought, “Well.” I saw this movie called the Field of Dreams when I was a kid. This guy had the same thing. He’s like, “If I build a baseball diamond in my backyard, kids will want to come to play baseball.”
[00:16:10] I thought the same thing. If I created this amazing innovation center for the employees to come, they’ll want to come and I’ll see innovation start to thrive and all of that. That’s what happened. I thought of merging what they were currently doing. At the time, Hatch was an innovation-doing place.
[00:16:29] If you had an idea to prototype something, it was like, “You could go there, nobody would know what you’re doing, and you have a safe space.” You could do whatever you’re doing and nobody would bother you because they don’t know you’re working on it. Right. There were small groups and small teams that had space.
[00:16:44] Other than that, you wouldn’t have a reason to go. I’m like, “What if you could learn about innovation at the space and then do it so you could learn it and then do it literally, and literally move through the different steps in innovation and learn as you go along, and then do it so it’s like a hybrid learning, training doing kind of spot.”
[00:17:02] Because I was a designer, I’m like, “I need more mood lighting here, more colorful lights, and we need more textures. We need more graphic design. We need all these fun, playful elements to make it interesting” because it was more warehouse looking. It was white and gray palettes.
[00:17:17] As a creative person, I’m like, “White and gray just doesn’t stoke the creative fires in me. How do we introduce lighting, colors, textures, and all these other elements to make it a creative place where people enjoy coming?
[00:17:31] This was out of curiosity. That’s what came out of it. That was one thing to do. I started using Hatch as kind of like, “If you want to do innovation, learn about innovation, you come here.” I started holding events. Once a month, I started holding events, and then came up to three times a month. I’m holding events.
[00:17:49] If you wanted to learn anything about innovation, you’d see me there. I’d have talks. I’d have you do exercises. I’d have speakers. I’d have all sorts of things for you to learn because I thought, for a culture to be innovative, you have to learn how to be innovative.
[00:18:05] We think innovation’s just a magical thing that nobody can learn. Like we all want it, but we can’t get it and I’m like, “No. It’s not magic. It’s a buildable skill set.” And I’m like, “I know I’ve learned how to do it so I can teach people what I’ve learned how to do.”
[00:18:21] That was kind of my approach. I just taught people everything I knew.
[00:18:26] Maggie Chui: Wow. I think you had a lot of great points there because I feel like a lot of people put themselves into different buckets. Like, “Am I a creative person, or am I not?” It’s easy to think that you are not a creative person if you don’t have the opportunity to go out there, learn how to be creative, and learn how to be innovative.
[00:18:46] They automatically assume, “Oh, I’m not creative or I’m not innovative.” I think it’s because they just don’t get the opportunity to go out there and learn how to be creative. I think that’s one of the things I wanted to ask you.
[00:18:57] What is your perspective on that? Do you believe that everyone can be creative and that people who may not find themselves to be creative, will be able to develop that skill set later on if they invest in learning it? Or do you believe that certain people are just naturally more creative than others? That could also be true, but I want to know from your perspective what that might be.
[00:19:19] Leo Chan: I believe that anybody can be an innovator. I think some people have sort of like you said, predisposed dispositions towards it. Honestly, being a learner and being curious is one of those things, but anybody can learn the skill set if you have a desire for it. Honestly, it’s just like learning anything, just like reading as we learn. Everybody learns how to read as when we were kids.
[00:19:40] We all learn. We can learn to be innovative. I do believe that we’re all creative. I just think we tend to use that word only for we tend to reserve for the arts, like the music, the writers, the designers, the filmmakers, all those types of people. But I’m like, “if you cook, I think it’s highly creative.”
[00:19:59] My wife, I don’t know if she would call herself creative, but when she’s in the kitchen, she’s trying out spices and smelling things. It’s innovation. It’s creating a new thing. We do it more often than we think. We tend to label the word “innovation” to these really big things like Elon Musk and flying us to Mars.
[00:20:21] Is that innovation? Sure it is, but it doesn’t have to be these grandiose large things. I think it happens every day. If you can think differently about something, if you’ve changed the way you’ve done something, to me that’s innovation. That’s creativity. It’s more present in our daily lives than we realize.
[00:20:39] I think a lot more people are innovators and they just don’t realize it. Can they hone the skill set? Absolutely. But I think they’re already doing it. They just don’t realize it.
[00:20:46] Maggie Chui: Absolutely. I think you brought up a really important topic that every industry or everything that you do requires innovation; requires creativity.
[00:20:55] It’s not something that we think about often because you are right. When you think of creativity or you think of, “Oh, I’m creative. I’m in the arts. I’m a musician. I’m an artist.” But honestly, if you’re an entrepreneur or even if you’re a professional, working in nine to five, that also requires creativity and that also requires innovation. Everything requires innovation but it’s not something we think about that often.
[00:21:18] I do want to talk about Abound Innovation. Tell us how you decided to start Abound Innovation and when you decided to start it, were you still at Chick-fil-A, or was it after? Tell us what that process was like.
[00:21:33] Leo Chan: I’ve always wanted to be an entrepreneur. I was a person that always could see new things. I would always dream up new ideas. I’d be walking around the grocery store, and I’m like, “You know what’s dumb? Why is it so hard to find stuff.” This was like 20 to 30 years ago before they had GPS inside grocery stores.
[00:21:52] I’m like, “Wouldn’t it be cool if there was like an in-store GPS where it’d be like, “I want cilantro.” and then it just tells you where to go? That makes so much sense.” I’ve always had ideas like this, but then I never did anything with them. What I realized about myself was I was afraid of the financial risk of entrepreneurship, but I had the heart of an entrepreneur.
[00:22:11] My magic sauce at the time was being in corporate innovation because I was a corporate entrepreneur. I had financial stability, I had corporate money, and a stable job, and could still explore new ideas. I think I’ve always had the desire to be on my own, but I just never had the guts.
[00:22:31] Anyway, I did not want to leave Chick-fil-A. I was such a fan of my job, great organization, incredible job. It was an incredible thing but during the pandemic, some personal things changed for my wife and me, so we decided to move home to Toronto. Unfortunately, I wasn’t allowed to work remotely here in Canada for Chick-fil-A.
[00:22:53] I decided to find my own business about innovation and fortunately, Chick-fil-A became a client of mine. Word “abound” actually, if you don’t know what it means, the word “abound” is an environment where things are thriving when you have too much of it. It’s an abundance.
[00:23:11] I think that that’s what innovation should be in all organizations. We should all have the ability to have an abundance of innovation wherever we are and if we train our workforces, we train our staff and our people with the skill sets, then we can have that.
[00:23:29] What I saw at Chick-fil-A, one of the programs I led at Chick-fil-A was this group of innovation coaches. These were like regular, everyday employees that I turned into confident innovators. One of them called themselves a “mini Leo”, which is hilarious. What she learned from me was how to innovate and what she did was she applied what she learned from me in her day-to-day life and day-to-day work.
[00:23:55] She championed her team in her department so that people would then go to her and ask her, “Hey, I need to innovate. What should I do?” She was in some ways a copy of me. It was cool to see people learn this new skill set because people would come to me at Chick-fil-A and they’re like, “It’s really interesting. This innovation stuff, how do I learn more?” And I’m like, “Well, hang out with me and become an innovation coach.” Like “What’s that?” And I’m like, “It’s the program that I run. I teach you everything I know. I pour into innovation development, skillset, mindset, like everything, and you too can become an innovator.” And they’re like, “Woah. Really?” And I’m like, “Yeah. It’s free. All you need is your boss’s permission and you come to hang out with me.” And they’re like, “Oh, this is amazing.”
[00:24:34] I had one young lady. It was her birthday and I told her- it just happened to be her birthday with the day we met. She was telling me she’s like, “This is the best birthday gift I have ever received in my life.”
[00:24:45] She’s like, “I’m going to ask my boss. I’m sure it’ll be fine.” She was like she was freaking out and I saw the power of turning people onto this concept like you too can innovate. I will be your guide and I will teach you all these things. That’s what I do as my business, as Abound Innovation is to teach all the things about how to be an innovator, the skill sets, the mindsets because again, you can have it in your organization.
[00:25:11] You just need the right person to teach you and guide you through the journey. You can have it because I saw so much transformation in all these people. I had up to 85 people under me at one time. I was teaching them all this stuff and they loved this.
[00:25:25] Like one of the people too, she went on maternity leave and she was like, “I’m not going to miss my job. I’m going to be missing innovation coaching with you. That’s when I’m going to miss the most.” I’m like, “That’s amazing. That’s incredible. This is blowing my mind.”
[00:25:41] What I want for all organizations is to see innovation thrive. When people see that their ideas matter and that they can make them happen, they’re so happy and it’s amazing for them. That’s what I do. I bring innovative skill sets and mindsets to organizations.
[00:25:57] Maggie Chui: That’s incredible. We need that at all companies. It’s sad to think that not all companies have that and I think it’s so important. I think that people are so excited about innovation because you don’t get that opportunity at every company that you work for. It’s something new and exciting, and you don’t realize that it’s something that’s needed for you to constantly adapt and grow.
[00:26:22] If you don’t have that in front of you, you realize or you just kind of stay stagnant. You think, ” Oh, maybe this is the way it’s supposed to be. Maybe I just have to find innovation within myself.” Or, “If I’m not creative, then I’m not creative.”
[00:26:36] But that’s not true. You have to go out there and find opportunities for you to learn how to be creative. I think that’s something that’s so needed within all organizations but sadly, I think there are a lot of companies that don’t even realize that that’s needed.
[00:26:53] Leo Chan: My hypothesis is organizations prioritize or say they want innovation. When we say that, I feel like we say we want the ideas that come from innovation. We want high revenue, like billion-dollar ideas, whatever, but we forget that it’s people that create innovation and your people are your greatest assets in your organization.
[00:27:13] If you focus on teaching them and building them up, then the innovations will come. The people will focus on the output and not the person creating the output. I think for me, people would ask me things like, “What were the outcomes of the innovation coach?” I’m like, “We transform people’s lives. They now call themselves innovators. I don’t even care what the output of what they do is because I know when you think differently when you have all these entrepreneurs running around your organization, thinking like, “Oh, we can change this. We can do this better. This can be better.” And they’re constantly doing that, the output comes in spades but we forget to focus on your people, focus on developing them, giving them the skillset, and people are a lot happier. They’re so happy. They’re like, “Wow. I created this idea.”
[00:27:59] They get to see it come to life and people want to see that. People don’t want to come to places where they’re told “No. They can’t innovate. You’re not allowed to do this. We have to do it the same way.” When you probably have all these great ideas that you want to see implemented.
[00:28:13] It gives you job satisfaction. It gives you more retention. It gets you more like, “Oh. There are so many benefits in innovation.”
[00:28:20] Maggie Chui: Absolutely. I agree. Can you walk us through some of the things that you typically look for when you’re identifying future innovators? I just want to understand your thought process and how you typically coach them when they come onto you to Abound Innovation.
[00:28:37] Leo Chan: I think one of the greatest things is it goes back to what you had mentioned at the start, like an opportunity and openness to want to learn. Being open is a really important trait for people to start being innovative. I’ve been in this field for a long time, but I still always feel like I can learn more.
[00:28:57] I can learn from this conversation with you. I can learn from a student. I can learn from a young child. I feel like I can learn from anybody. I think we must have that kind of mindset because when we close our minds and think we’re an expert, or like, “I don’t need to pay attention anymore.”, we miss so many opportunities.
[00:29:15] I think one of the traits of someone that wants to be an innovator is openness, a learning heart, and being curious just like, “Oh. Yeah. Tell me more about that.” I feel like we can always level up. I think that’s a really important part. Another really interesting thing I think with innovators or people that want to become innovators, they’re very relationship oriented.
[00:29:38] It may sound kind of counterintuitive, but it’s something that shocked me when I went into the innovation field. I was like, “Oh. I never realized how important your relationships are with people in innovation.” In reflection, it makes a lot of sense because innovation changes things, it disrupts the status quo, and it’s different every day.
[00:30:00] Humans don’t like change. If I went to you Maggie and like, “Hey, Maggie. I got this great process for you to implement and it’s going to save you time.” But you’ve been used to doing this for what, 20 years? Like, “Not really.” You’re not going to want but if we had a good relationship, I’m like, “You know what? I believe it’s going to work. It’s going to save you time.” You might be like, “I trust Leo so even though what he’s saying to me might disrupt what I’m doing, I trust him. I’ll be more willing to see and try, and have an open mind to innovation.”
[00:30:31] Relationships are so critical in this world of innovation because we have to establish trust with each other so that when we are disrupting things, we can lean into each other, and have these all open and honest conversations.
[00:30:43] I had people. I facilitated innovation workshops a lot too and people were like, “I know Leo’s going to do these crazy exercises. It’s going to be different, but I trust him that he’s doing something that will lead us to a better outcome.” Trust is a really important part of innovation that I don’t think is talked about, but we need to care.
[00:31:04] Innovation, it’s all about humans. Right? We’re innovating for humans, so we need to consider one another and have that as well.
[00:31:11] Maggie Chui: Absolutely. When you’re dealing with innovation, when you’re trying to make a change in a company, you have to put yourself in very uncomfortable positions.
[00:31:20] I think that goes a lot into that relationship building. You have to put your trust in the person who’s trying to show you what you can do to get to the next level for your business. That just also goes back to when you’re dealing with change within an organization, it usually deals with a lot of people at the organization.
[00:31:42] It deals with a lot of relationships. It deals with a lot of connections. You have to put a lot of trust in other people and yourself as well when you’re going through so many changes. You mentioned when companies are reluctant to change, do you think that is the one biggest thing that keeps a company from building a thriving culture of innovation? In your perspective, what is the one biggest thing that keeps a company from doing that?
[00:32:10] Leo Chan: I think one of the biggest, hardest roadblocks for organizations is that they think innovation is like an add-on. It’s like something that you can do when you have spare time, you have margin, or you have an extra budget. It’s like this bonus thing that you can only do if you have time and businesses are too busy currently putting out fires and all this type of thing so I don’t have time to innovate right now.
[00:32:36] I think it’s also because innovation is the big eye. We have to send people to Mars. We have to create an ability to breathe underwater for the rest. Really big eyes. Whereas innovation needs to happen in our every day and innovation, when it happens every day creates more margin for you.
[00:32:52] All those big fires don’t become fires anymore. You can focus on it. Companies need to make an intentional choice to prioritize that we need to innovate right now. We need to innovate the day-to-day minutia so that we can get ourselves more margin, that we can think more creatively, and we can think about the bigger eye innovation because the thing is, other smaller companies, that are newer, that are more nimble, will be able to innovate faster than you can and disrupt your industry in your marketplace.
[00:33:19] We don’t realize that. We’re like, “Oh, I’m a big company. I’ve been around for 50 years.” Guess what? Some competitors have new tech, that has smaller teams that can have a less organizational drag that can make faster changes.
[00:33:34] It’s scary because now we’re a global economy where companies from any part of the globe can disrupt what you’re doing. When I was at State Farm, there was this tiny- State Farm in the US is one of the largest auto insurers. Pretty much, you have a one-in-two chance of hitting a State Farm insured if you’re uninsured.
[00:33:54] There was this really small startup at the time called Metromile. There were these two guys in a garage that created a technology platform, but they developed usage-based insurance. This was like, “If you drive five miles, we will ensure you for five miles.”
[00:34:08] It makes sense. State Farm at the time when I was there, they weren’t interested in thinking about that type of space because they’re the largest national auto insurer, but this company started making waves. They got into more and more states like, “I became a Metromile insurance customer myself because this is a disruptive model.”
[00:34:30] My insurance was like $400 a year. It was insane. It was so low. I work for State Farm over to them and then eventually they’re like, “Oh, crap. This is pretty competitive.” and there were two guys that had no insurance background that created this incredible startup. There are kinds of companies that exist today that can disrupt you so if we don’t prioritize innovation right now because it’s an add-on, the competition will either eat you alive or you’re going to become irrelevant quickly.
[00:35:03] The time to innovate for all organizations right now is now and I think the pandemic shows us that we have no idea what could happen in our future. If we’re not prepared for those things which are innovative, then we’re literally in trouble and we don’t want to see all these companies close down or mom-and-pop shops shutting down because we weren’t able to think differently about our work.
[00:35:24] Innovation allows us to think differently about our work, pivot, and adjust to a changing dynamic marketplace in an environment.
[00:35:31] Maggie Chui: Absolutely. I feel like with a lot of big organizations that have been around for a longer time, they also have legacy processes, legacy systems that they’re not willing to change because it’s always worked. This has always worked for us in the past so there’s no need to change these processes.
[00:35:46] You’re right. These startups, these small startups, and even two people teams are coming up with the most creative ideas and being super innovative because they can do so. They’re just going into the market with brand new ideas, something that no one has ever done before. Sadly, that’s how they beat out a lot of these larger corporations.
[00:36:10] Leo Chan: Yeah. There are some really scary stats like Fortune 500. Companies back in the day used to live for 70 years, but now they have a life span of less than 20 which is crazy.
[00:36:20] If you think of all the big companies today, seeing at 20 years, that’s insane, right? There are all these statistics now that you see all these large companies just being kicked out. We all know the Blockbuster and Netflix example. Blockbuster had the opportunity to buy Netflix.
[00:36:36] Netflix went to them and Blockbuster was like, “Oh, you’re a cute little niche market, little thing, and you’re not making any money. Go away.” What happened? What’s a Blockbuster? That’s what happens. That’s a really large story, but Blockbuster was huge. I think 80 countries around the world. It has 7,000 stores and this little Netflix. That’s what happens.
[00:37:02] Maggie Chui: Absolutely. You just have to see. You have to see where the times are going. With technology at the time, Blockbuster was really big. I think they missed such a big opportunity because they weren’t able to predict and see into the future to realize that technology is getting big and maybe Netflix is going to become a successful thing.
[00:37:27] I do want to shift the topic a little bit and talk a little bit about you. As an innovator yourself and someone who coaches innovators, do you ever run into creative roadblocks? If so, how do you overcome them?
[00:37:42] Leo Chan: Yeah. All the time. I think it’s really important to never feel like- I think this goes back to the learning conversation and just being inspired. I think it’s natural for us to hit walls. I know when I was a designer, I hit walls all the time.
[00:38:00] Actually, I still use design now in my practice. It’s just part of it. We’re not always going to have the million-dollar ideas or the things that are going to move the needle forward. I think some of it is just permitting us to be like this is just naturally part of the process.
[00:38:16] We do hit creative blocks. We do hit creative walls but I think what happens for most people is that they don’t know they can do anything about it. If I am feeling creatively burned out or let’s say my ideas don’t feel as creative as before, I have to look at it like, “What am I doing? Is my schedule too busy? Do I have too many meetings? When’s the last time I went for a walk, went out to play, or just have fun and just do something enjoyable that helps give me a creative reset?”
[00:38:44] I find when I have hit those types of things, I intentionally will go do other things like I’ll go play a video game. I’ll watch it. I’ll go for a walk outside. I’ll go to a place that I find inspiring. I’ll sit by the water or the lake, or I’ll listen to music that I think is interesting. I’ll do something to feed my brain with new inspiration because often, we think that if you just keep banging your head against the wall, it’ll eventually come.
[00:39:10] You can try that, but it’s pretty frustrating so doing something else actually is good. You have heard that saying like the best ideas come when you’re going for a walk or in the shower. It’s because we’ve given our mind space to think. Doing anything else gives us room to think differently.
[00:39:30] Back in the day when we used to drive to work, that commute gives our brain space to wander around and think about different things. If you find yourself in a creative block, go do something that you might find invigorating for your creativity. If you like a certain type of music, then going to listen to some music or playing a video game is helpful. Go play some video. Watch a movie. Watch Star Trek. Do something that will help nurture your creativity and nurture yourself. That will help a lot.
[00:39:59] Maggie Chui: Absolutely. That’s exactly why balance is so important. People are always constantly telling us that we need to find time to watch out for our health as well because I think the hustle culture can become very toxic when we’re constantly being told we have to work harder or work faster. That doesn’t give us time to reflect and see how we can improve ourselves and our business.
[00:40:22] Leo Chan: Ideas need time to form in your brain. If your brain is full like overcapacity and full, ideas will just be like, “I wanted to visit Leo today, but he’s too busy so I’m going to go over to Maggie. Let’s see if Maggie’s brain. If Maggie’s full, I’m going to go somewhere else.
[00:40:38] We need the ability to have a margin for ideas to come sit with us and visit us so that we can then write them down or do something with them. If we don’t, they’re not going to come to see us.
[00:40:49] Maggie Chui: Right. Absolutely. Leo, what has been one thing that you learned about yourself since you started this journey in innovation, just being creative, and starting Abound Innovation? If you could hone in on one thing that you learned about yourself, what would that be?
[00:41:09] Leo Chan: I think something I’ve learned about myself is how much I enjoy giving this to others like helping other people find this in themselves because I think I feel very blessed to have been able to work in these areas. I’ve been in creative places. I’ve been a designer. I’ve been involved in innovation in organizations.
[00:41:33] I feel very fortunate to have had this opportunity. I don’t feel like everybody gets that. I feel like innovation is honestly a gift to people because they finally in some ways can connect a huge part of themselves that may not be fully utilized into something that they can use every day.
[00:41:52] I get to do this every single day. I get to think differently about things and teach others. I think I realize this real passion in my heart to train people and empower them. There’s one young lady I met and I was impressed with how she described that.
[00:42:07] She’s like, “This is me.” She drew a Venn diagram of herself, like her skill sets and she had a Venn diagram of herself at work. She’s like, “For my entire life, it’s always been separated. I was always just hoping that some points would just bump and connect like this.”
[00:42:23] She’s like, “Until I met you and you talked to me about innovation, now I feel like it’s like this. Finally, it’s my full self, my full passions, my skills, and finally at work. It can finally be the same thing.” And I was just blown away by that. I was like, “Wow. I had no idea that I could have influence like that over somebody else and to show them something that they could use.”
[00:42:47] She’s like, “I always thought I was like this weird person, like thinking differently, asking questions, like people were like, ‘Oh, you’re that weird person?’ rolling their eyes.” and I’m like, “No. That’s a good thing. It’s good that you see things differently. We need more like you.” She’s like, “Really?” I’m like, “Yeah.”
[00:43:01] I think it ignited something in me that I can help others see, see better, and apply themselves more at work. It’s surreal and it is just in life. I think innovation changes your life. You can’t separate work and personal life with innovation because it transforms everything.
[00:43:17] Maggie Chui: Absolutely. Leo, you’re changing lives and I think you’re the guy who turns on the light bulb for everyone’s minds, thoughts, and everything like that. I think that’s such an invigorating experience to go through because a lot of us sometimes never get to that level.
[00:43:38] Sometimes we just think, “Oh, maybe this is just how things are. Maybe I’m just that person who is never creative.” But you’re that person who turns on that light bulb for other people. That’s amazing. Thank you for all that you do.
[00:43:51] Leo Chan: It’s a pleasure.
[00:43:53] Maggie Chui: Leo, what is next for you in the next five years? What’s your hope and dream for Abound Innovation and what do you have in store?
[00:44:02] Leo Chan: Oh, wow. Five years. One of my dreams is to become like Brené Brown for innovation or like Canva for innovation. I would love to see innovation be something completely ubiquitous where everybody feels empowered and equipped to do innovation.
[00:44:21] It’s thriving everywhere. It’s abounding everywhere. That’s kind of my dream because I feel like it makes so much impact on people’s day-to-day life that when they- again, that Venn diagram, I can’t describe it any better than that picture. But when people can do that, everything is better.
[00:44:38] When we can think differently about our work, that means that we’re serving our customers better, we’re serving everybody better, we’re more fulfilled at work, and all those types of things. That’s what I’d love to see. I hope that I can get this to a point of scale where there are digital courses maybe or these different things that people can subscribe to, really make innovation into our every day to move it from that big eye to a little eye, and having everybody empowered and equipped to do it. That would be my dream.
[00:45:07] Maggie Chui: Very exciting. No doubt that you will get there. If you do come out with an online course, I will be checking that out.
[00:45:16] Leo Chan: Sweet.
[00:45:17] Maggie Chui: Leo, we have one last question for you and that is if you could give one piece of advice to someone who’s trying to create a safe space for innovation, what would that one piece of advice be?
[00:45:29] Leo Chan: That’s a workshop I have. I’m very passionate about this particular topic. I would say that we have a lot more agency over that than we realize. Something that I realized I was doing for others was creating a safe space for them to explore innovation because innovation I think is exciting, but it’s terrifying because it’s like, “I have no idea if what I’m saying is going to work. I have no idea.”
[00:45:56] I need the safety or if you can call it boldness or confidence, to be able to step into that and see if it will work or not. I need the people that I work with that are around me to give me that permission to try and see and fail if it fails. Sixty if it succeeds. But give me permission and a safe environment that I can go explore.
[00:46:17] like the Chick-fil-A Hatch innovation center. That result came because my boss was open-minded and allowed me a safe space to explore because I did not have the credentials. I did not design an innovation center before, but he permitted me to explore it and gave me the budget. He gave me the green light.
[00:46:38] He told me to talk to the VP. He permitted me to explore that. As individuals or as leaders, we can create this for others. One of the ways that I like to share with people how they can do this is just actively listening and paying attention when people are sharing something with us.
[00:46:54] Maggie, let’s say you’re excited about something. You’re like, “Oh Leo, I want to talk to you about this great idea.” And I’m like, “Okay.” And if I was giving you a frowning face or looking around while you’re talking to me or keeping checking my watch, you would feel defeated and discouraged.
[00:47:10] You’d probably be like, “I don’t want to talk to Leo ever again.” I need to lay a sign, any agenda that I have, pay attention to you, and lean into what you’re saying. It doesn’t mean that I’m going to say yes to everything that you’re saying, but permitting you to explore that.
[00:47:24] One of the ways you can do that is just by listening to how people are saying things. I discovered this about myself. Sometimes, I’m about to share something and I shoot myself down as I’m seeing it. I might be like, “Hey, Maggie. I have a great idea.” And you’re like, “Oh wait. No, never mind.” And I’ll make a face.
[00:47:39] At that moment you could be like, “Hey, Leo. I can see that you have an idea. Why don’t you tell me more about that? Explore that with me.” And I’d be like, “Oh, okay.” And then now you’ve just engaged me because I don’t feel safe in my own space. You’ve engaged me to feel safe with you and be like, “Okay, Maggie. Well, you know I’m thinking about this.” If we listen to people’s language and observe their eyes, their tone, their voice, and all those types of things, we are getting cues from them and we can create safety by listening, probing more leaning in, like, “Tell me what you have.” Smiling, encouraging it out of them versus just letting it go.
[00:48:19] When we often miss those moments where maybe I had a great idea but then I shut myself down or whatever, and then it’s gone. Again, then that idea goes to somebody else. We can create this for people by being intentional about that.
[00:48:36] Maggie Chui: That’s really good advice. I think when you’re giving an idea when you have an idea that comes up and you want to share it with someone, you’re being very vulnerable at that moment because maybe it’s a good idea to you, but maybe it’s not a good idea to someone else. When you’re sharing it with someone, you run the risk of someone saying, “Oh, I don’t think that’s a good idea.” But if you’re able to be calmer, if that other person is like, “Oh, I want to hear more about it.”
[00:48:59] Maybe it’s not the best idea, but that idea can develop into something greater. Something that you both can agree on. I think that’s really good advice so thank you so much for sharing that.
[00:49:08] Leo Chan: Absolutely.
[00:49:10] Maggie Chui: Leo, where can our listeners find out more about you and Abound Innovation, Inc. online?
[00:49:15] Leo Chan: You can go to aboundinnovation.ca. That’s the website and then for me, I’m on all things social. I’m @leonelsonchan. I’m most active on LinkedIn. I’m trying Instagram. I put out a monthly newsletter if you’re interested to keep in touch or just know more about innovation and creativity. I post a lot of my thoughts and musings on LinkedIn mostly. I’ll try and expand to more social platforms eventually but LinkedIn is probably the best place you can connect with me.
[00:49:45] Maggie Chui: Awesome. We’ll leave all of that in the show notes of this episode. Leo, thank you so much for being on the Asian Hustle Network podcast day. It was amazing hearing about your story.
[00:49:53] Leo Chan: Thank you so much for having me. It was a delight to talk to you today, Maggie.
[00:49:57] Maggie Chui: Likewise.