Kaihan Krippendorff, Eng’94, W’94
Founder of Outthinker
I interviewed Kaihan Krippendorff, Eng’94, W’94, (German-Bangladeshi) three years ago for my podcast The Immigrant Entrepreneur, where we discussed the importance of language.
Kaihan’s firm, Outthinker, has trained more than 7,000 leaders, mostly in Fortune 500 companies, to strategize for growth. His team developed a unique methodology to strategize and uses it to train companies directly or facilitate off-site workshops.
He roots his success in both his German father (a longtime professor at the Annenberg School) and Bangladeshi mother.
How did you start Outthinker?
I was working at McKinsey when I published my first book, The Art of the Advantage, in 2004. I wanted time to do the best I could to promote the book, as well as interact with companies on the theme of the book, because I didn’t know if I would ever write a book again.
Soon after the book came out, I began consulting on my own. Based on a subsequent book, Outthink the Competition, I changed the name of my firm to Outthinker.
What’s the idea behind outthinking?
Strategy is the conclusion of a conversation. Before the concept of zero was transmitted through language, certain mathematical problems could not be solved. Outthinking begins with stepping out of the vocabulary that we rely on to try to solve a problem by introducing new articulated concepts that then reveal new solutions.
Why is language so important?
My father has been a professor of communications at the University of Pennsylvania for 50 years at the Annenberg School across Locust Walk from Steinberg-Dietrich Hall. One of his specialties and passions is social constructionism, the idea that we create the world around us through our language. I grew up immersed in that perspective. Evenings around our fireplace, I listened to my father’s colleagues discussing this idea. So, as I studied business, I was drawn to business concepts not as truths but as useful language tools for solving problems. Before the 1980s, for example, the concept of “competitive advantage” did not exist in business. When the concept was introduced by Michael Porter, it changed how organizations behaved.
Can you give an example of how you helped a company outthink?
For confidentiality reasons, I can’t speak about much of our work, but I can share a project we did for Macmillan, the publisher. We were exploring ways it might deal with the growing popularity of self-publishing. The team came up with an idea that led to what is now called Swoon Reads, a platform for would-be self-published authors in the young adult (YA) genre. The authors submit manuscripts to a community of YA readers, and the crowd gives feedback and edits these manuscripts. The crowd then selects its favorite books, and the winner gets published by Macmillan.
On the surface, it’s just a crowdsourced platform for YA books. But the strategic brilliance behind it is that it insulates Macmillan against a fundamental, potentially lethal market disruption. CNN, The New York Times, the BBC and others have all cited this as one of the biggest innovations in publishing in recent years.
How does intrapreneurship differ from entrepreneurship?
The intrapreneur sees opportunities for innovation, chooses one, takes action and rallies resources.
The intrapreneur works within pre-existing norms of pricing, distribution, people policies, incentivizing and processes. These are potential obstacles. But there are four reasons why innovating from within is better:
Scale — Entrepreneurs can only dream of such scale.
Resources — Companies have earnings that they allocate for reinvestment that can accommodate reasonable risk.
Diversification — Companies can engineer a reasonable risk by making multiple bets.
Capabilities — Organizations have access to multiple capabilities, expertise, market experience and technology, all under one roof.
What are you doing now?
My interest over the past three years has been in intrapreneurship. The reason is because most of our consulting work is running strategic ideation workshops within established companies.
Oftentimes, the ideas that come out of the workshops don’t go anywhere — they clash against the bureaucracy (the norms, systems and priorities).
This failure to implement drives the myth that established organizations cannot innovate and are naturally resistant to new ideas.
I set out to test this belief. I reviewed 30 of the most transformative innovations over the past three decades, as defined by a panel of Wharton professors. I analyzed those and found that 22 of those innovations were conceived by employees, not entrepreneurs. Without employee innovators, you wouldn’t have mobile phones, the internet or email. If you got sick, you couldn’t get an MRI done or stent implanted. We owe much of the modern world to employee innovators.
In my new book, tentatively titled Innovate From Within: Change the World Without Quitting Your Job, I summarize the findings from 150 interviews with internal innovators and experts, discussing seven primary barriers that hinder employee-driven innovation and offering tools to remove them.
You’ve been consulting now for 14 years. What observations can you make about how corporations or their employees approach problems today?
Management is more design than science. There is no universal right way of doing things. Rather, the best approaches evolve over time. I see three major shifts underway. When I started, the best approaches centered around the competition: how to block them and force them to make unattractive choices. Today, it is about the customer and how to understand, predict, and even better, create customer needs.
In the past, businesses existed to maximize shareholder value. Today, winning companies recognize that the best way to create value is to do good for society and the world. In the past, companies created detailed plans that they later funded. Today, small experiments are the winning approach.
What did you learn at Wharton?
Wharton taught me to integrate domains of business knowledge. I got to see how marketing and organization drive corporate finance, which creates value in capital markets and allows companies to reinvest in marketing and organization. I specialized in quantitative areas (finance and engineering), but got exposed to the human side as well.
What’s your immigrant advantage or perspective?
I think the biggest advantage that immigrants have, is perspective. My father was a young child in Germany during World War II. He survived bombings — his family crouched in the basement, while his neighborhood was substantially flattened. He snuck out of East Germany at the end of the war through canals to avoid detection by Russian soldiers. My mother’s family lived through the Bangladeshi genocide in which 3 million died. They both came to the U.S. through educational scholarships.
My mother repeatedly told me that, in their day, it was understood that, at some point in their lives, they would experience war, and that mine was perhaps the first generation that would not (fingers crossed!). I think that coming from such a history gives immigrants an appreciation of how lucky we are, how fragile the apparent order around us is, and the ability to put life’s challenges in perspective.
My wife, who is also a Penn grad (School of Arts and Sciences, and of Law), was similarly born into a family of immigrants — in her case, from Latin America. She shares that same worldview, and I think it has really helped us continue to focus what we hold as important — our children, for example — regardless of whatever challenges life throws at us.
Beyond that, my parent’s cultures — German and Bangladeshi — are in multiple ways polar opposites. One is structured and planned, and one is free-flowing and spontaneous. Growing up between these poles, I think, gave me an appreciation for the value of adopting diverse approaches. My strategic approach really pendulates between these two. You need both to solve problems — free-flowing ideation and then analytical assessment.
Finally, coming from an immigrant background gave me a world identity, which includes my speaking German and Spanish. In my work, this allows me to customize my approach, which my clients appreciate.