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Goat Factory Ep 001: Adam Morgan, Creative Director @ Adobe

In our premiere episode, Mark speaks with Adam Morgan, Executive Creative Director at Adobe. Adam is a speaker, host of the Real Creative Leadership Podcast, and author of the book, Sorry Spock, Emotions Drive Business. In 2020, AdWeek named Adam to their list of 100 Creatives recognizing his influence on marketing, media, and culture.

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Mark Kuhn: Welcome to GOAT Factory Podcast where we speak with some of the greatest minds about creative problem-solving in their company culture. In each episode, we demystify the granddaddy of all tech buzz words.

That’s the word—innovation—by revealing people, processes, products in and around it. 

Today we’re speaking with Adam Morgan, executive creative director at Adobe. Adam is both an incredible career as a creative leader. He’s a speaker, host of the Real Creative Leadership Podcast, author of several books including Sorry Spock, Emotions Drive Business

This year, Adweek named Adam to the list of their 100 creatives recognizing his influence on marketing, media, and culture. Welcome, Adam.

Adam Morgan: Hey thanks for having me. That’s a nice intro.


Mark Kuhn: [Laughs] A little bit of research, yeah, you’re pretty cool. A lot of good thought-leadership around creativity, innovation, and emotions. 


Adam Morgan: Well, I’m trying. I’m trying to share what I know. 


Mark Kuhn: So let’s start at the beginning, cos this podcast is about this word that we at Oat Foundry have slogged through, struggled through, and it’s the word innovation. 

My question is do you find it has outkicked its coverage? To say do teams focus on creative innovation as a process? Is innovation just a phrase? Is it totally bullshit? Is it the byproduct of great work? Is it what outsiders and observers see as when it seems seamless? When it feels effortless? Is that what outsiders say what’s innovation? Give me some of your perspectives.  


Adam Morgan: Hm, well, that was a lot. So I’ll start with just a word and my experience on it. 


Mark Kuhn: Yeah.


Adam Morgan: It’s always this debate between the word “creativity,” the word “innovation,” and the word “design.” And those three things get kicked around a lot, at least in my world, as to which one means what. And certainly any word, the more it’s used the more it’s gonna gain value or lose both. 


Mark Kuhn: Yeah.


Adam Morgan: And innovation has done that.  It’s the same word that every company uses in one of their five founding principles, and because it’s used like that it’s just become vanilla. And most people just don’t necessarily believe it. But at its core, if you get at what it means or what it’s trying to get at there’s still truth in that. That for me, ideas can change the world. Ideas are at their root of good business and growth and all of those things. 

But when I talk about the three, though, where I’ve seen it danced around like if you are in an engineering role, then you go to innovation as the word. If you are a designer or writer then creativity is the word. And if you are into UX and product design and all of that, then the design is the big capital D. Right, but capital C, capital D, capital I, depends on your background,— 


Mark Kuhn: Right.


Adam Morgan: But to me, they’re all not necessarily interchangeable. I think innovation is probably the most broad use, and then probably creativity, and then design is a subset of creativity, in my mind, in my perspective.


Mark Kuhn: And I like how you phrase that because it really teaches me something that like it’s a shibboleth. It tells you who someone is depending on what words that they’re using. So, you go to an engineering conference—you hear a lot of innovation, you go to a defense contract or conference, and its a lot of innovation versus design-led thinking but really we’re talking about the same thing— 


Adam Morgan: Yeah. ideas. 


Mark Kuhn: Yeah, ideas. I think it’s this idea of when we say, I’ve heard it so many times, Let’s not reinvent the wheel. When it comes to creative focus—design-focus, innovative focus, innovative thinking—do you think it’s important to reinvent the wheel in any capacity?


Adam Morgan: That’s a good question—what does it mean to reinvent the wheel?


Mark Kuhn: Yeah. 


Adam Morgan: So if I break apart—and this is like so theory, but whatever, we’re gonna get into this—if I break apart what I really think creativity means. Creativity to me, is a new combination of existing things. So if I’m doing an ad campaign, it’s using a visual or word in a new way. In a new combination that comes up with a brilliant idea. 

If you’re in business, it’s like how can I mix this kind of logistics with this kind of product and come up with a new plan? So to me, it’s like new combinations of stuff, right? That’s what it’s really all about. So I don’t know—go back to your original question of, remind me again. I went on a round— 


Mark Kuhn: Is it important to reinvent the wheel and I think— 


Adam Morgan: OK, reinventing the wheel. 


Mark Kuhn: Yeah.


Adam Morgan: So if it’s a new combination, to me then reinventing the wheel is what you do every single time you’re coming up with a new idea or you’re being creative. It’s not like we have to start from ground zero, but you do have to reinvent. You do have to change, you do have to make the new. So I think in a way you have to, I think that’s really what it is.


Mark Kuhn: And even that, I think, that’s a very salient point. That we’re not talking about completely from the ground of refresh. I think you said when you’re doing a campaign, it’s one part of it is gonna be maybe antithetical to how it used to be done. And that’s what’s the innovative part is— to break out of a mold because you’re really putting someone in a different setting where they can feel different emotion. and that’s what powerful about any of these creative campaigns.


Adam Morgan: That is true. Reinventing the wheel could mean two different things. It could mean starting from scratch and doing everything over, and I’m not saying that’s the right way, but I’m more of like standing on the shoulders of giants. Take everything that was done before, and then tweak it and change it and reinvent it and figure out a new way of making a combination. That, to me, is the right answer. 

And you’ve heard the old saying “Everything that’s ever been invented has been invented,” and it’s like maybe. Maybe all the elements are all here, it’s like the periodic table. Those are all there. But just like Remy sat on Ratatouille, there are so many millions of combinations that you could put food together in so many different ways that that’s the creativity of life. Like that’s bringing all of those and making all those combinations. I think that’s where we find fun.


Mark Kuhn: Yeah, I like that. There’s two parts of that I want to dig into. One is your knowledge of Disney films. I think you have some kids, I don’t know how many kids you have—but the ability to watch Disney films unabashedly and then feel the good emotions of those Disney films.


Adam Morgan: I definitely am a fan. But it’s not just the kids, it was like when I was a little kid, Disneyland was like my favorite spot to be. So there’s a lot of nostalgia. My kids are now like high school and college. And we actually would love to go anytime we can, every couple years we’ll go. But films—and you know what, here’s the other thing—cos I was thinking about this, sorry we’re totally tangeting here— 


Mark Kuhn: No, tangents are good, we like tangents. 


Adam Morgan: I was thinking about why do I always cry at every animated film—Disney or not. It’s like, I get emotional. You could have me watch Despicable Me and I could be like “Oh, it’s gonna kill me at my heartstrings.” And I think the reason why and also why I also have a really hard time watching drama films— 


Mark Kuhn: [hums in agreement] 


Adam Morgan: —is because as creatives—if you really think about it—MBAs and people who are in finance, people who are in operations, they’ve trained their brain to really hone in on differences in those numbers. In those little logical patterns. Whereas creative people like me, most of our career has been “How do I really connect with emotions? And with customers? And what they’re feeling and those experiences and journey?”  

That‘s the creative superpower of a creative person: I am focused on those emotional experiences. And it just becomes to a lot of people—they don’t even know it—it becomes this zen thing they can’t even tell you that they knew this was the right experience, or the right ad or the right idea because they just feel it. And I think that’s just what it’s been. My whole career I’m so hyper-focused on what’s been the emotion and what are people feeling, that of course when I watch a Disney animated film I’m gonna cry.


Mark Kuhn: You feel.


Adam Morgan: Yeah. [Laughs]


Mark Kuhn: Well I like that because, so I read Sorry Spock— 


Adam Morgan: Oh wow, thank you.


Mark Kuhn: —what a great book. It’s something that we’ve experienced so much at Oat Foundry. Just given our work, where we can’t just let logic lead. You really do need your foot on the gas and your foot on the brake at the same time and those are going to provide different—I’m sorry not at the same time, at different times—and those are gonna provide value to you. 

And I did have a question about that because there’s a chapter about emotions as what leads to creativity. And you have to allow yourself to feel these emotions and I think you had the anecdote in there about watching some of these movies. I like hearing you also echo that again— so true but, how do you practice? What would you say to someone who is on the logical side? They’re following the logical path of how they think someone should feel rather than simply feeling those emotions. 


Adam Morgan: Sure. I mean just think of what the daily creative practice and habits are. 


Mark Kuhn: [Hums in agreement]


Adam Morgan: Have them go out and people-watch.


Mark Kuhn: [Hums in agreement]


Adam Morgan: Go somewhere and just sit there and watch people. Try and think of like “OK what are their motivations? Why are they doing that? Why are they making those choices?”  The human just is great at empathy and I think just practicing that empathy is critical if you want to put yourself in their shoes. So go out and people-watch, do that. 

I would say expose yourself to emotionally charged things. Watch movies, read books, go through ad annuals and campaigns. If you want a supercharged, a million emotions, every page is a totally different emotion. Look through an old one show or communication arts— 


Mark Kuhn: [Hums in agreement]


Adam Morgan: —that’s where you’re gonna get all of those quick hits of emotions like “Oh, OK, that’s a great one. That’s a different one. Oh, that’s a different one.” But I’d say it’s a matter of exposure.


Mark Kuhn: Ok. Let me a follow question: is there some kind of permission that you’re giving yourself? Like you’re saying, I feel like there’s a part you have to unlock almost where you say, “I’m gonna sit down and I’m gonna feel feelings. I’m not gonna think about them. I’m not gonna piece them apart, understand them so much. I just wanna feel.” And you’re giving yourself the ability to do that.


Adam Morgan: Absolutely. Let me bring up another element of the book, which was, let’s say logical people or some finance person or someone whos a CEO—which I’m gonna come back to—like boards of directors and all of that— 


Mark Kuhn: Right. 


Adam Morgan: There is a part where they feel like good decision making is all about that logic. It’s all about being rational. But we have a lot of good research where telling yourself, giving yourself that permission, and even where creating space to feel is a critical part of decision-making. 

Meaning let’s say there’s a big decision you have to make for a company. And typically, you’d bring everyone together at the table, talk through all the different options. And then a normal leader would be like, “I wanna make the decisions right now in this meeting. BAM! Give me your good and the bad.”  But what’s really happening is they’re just only using their prefrontal cortex. They’re only gonna use logic. They’re just going through their checklist. 

And they’re waiting to hear when people “OK, say this, this, and that,” and the bias of, “OK I have confirmation bias, yes that’s the thing that I wanna do, I feel good about it.”  There’s some great examples of like [clears throat] CEO of some companies who will not allow a decision to be made in the meeting. And they’ll say, “Ok great, we’ve got all that information. Now we need some time to let it sit.”


Mark Kuhn: [Hums in agreement]


Adam Morgan: And you can’t make the decision for 24 hours. And then they’ll go home and sleep on it and feel. And give yourself permission to let the rest of your subconscious really feel and go. When we say feel, it sounds so zen, but if you logically looking back in their brain is  there’s a cross-tabulation going with all your past experiences—good, bad, all—everything you’ve learned. 

And your brain is really using logic, it’s just like the logic behind-the-scenes-superpower-logic and the way it communicates is through that emotion. That’s what really happening. Give yourself permission to feel and go back and just let it happen, and then you’ll make better decisions for your company. It won’t be just all based on logic.


Mark Kuhn: I like that as a practice. We’re podcasting about kind of people, processes, products—but as far as a process goes, that’s one that’s very actionable. To share with the team and say, “Hey let’s go. We’re gonna give you this exposure to all these old ads, or watch this movie.” And that’s the assignment. The assignment is sit there and sit there with it. And sometimes—if it’s a difficult topic—struggle with it. Whatever that emotion is. But that’s how we get, you’re talking about broadening the palette of your emotions because you wanna be able to feel any of a spectrum of whatever that color palette is to contextualize the logical decisions that you end up having to make at some point.


Adam Morgan: Yep. 


Mark Kuhn: Yeah.


Adam Morgan: The funny thing is, you look at creative people and that’s what they do all the time. The ones that I have lived and worked with forever—they are people-watchers. They’re taking notes, they’re like “That’s a great character for a book.” And they’re just really absorbing all of those little moments, and emotions, and things, and experiences that are surrounding them. It’s even funny, I knew of one creative he would for a tax write off he’d write off all of his movie tickets— 


Mark Kuhn: [Hums in agreement]


Adam Morgan: —and it was like, 

(Adam as himself) “What! What are you doing?” 

(Adam as the creative)It’s because I’m filling the well. I am putting all of that emotional fodder into my brain—” 


Mark Kuhn: Yup. 


Adam Morgan: (as the creative) “And it’s part of my business, so that later on when I come up with a brilliant idea, or business pivot, or whatever, that is in there.” 

(as himself) And so you gotta fill the well and feel it.


Mark Kuhn: I love that. it reminds me of Emma Coats, she’s a Pixar storyboard artist, I think she actually works at Google now. And she had published these 22 Rules— 


Adam Morgan: Yep, yep. The 22 Rules.


Mark Kuhn: —yeah things like throw out the first idea that comes to mind. Second, third, and fourth are the actual better ideas. What wouldn’t happen next. Things like that. Do you follow paradigms or rules like that? Or even what you just said—go out and people-watch and say “That’s the character of my next book.” 


Adam Morgan: Oh absolutely. There are so many. It all depends on what function you are doing. 


Mark Kuhn: [Hums in agreement]


Adam Morgan: So if it was like I’m writing headlines for a campaign, there are half a dozen rules. I even have like, man what is it, like 39 styles of headlines that I’ve witnessed over the years that it’s like “Oh yeah I could go through that whole list.” Or if I’m doing a different project of like, alright, it’s a brand narrative or it’s a brand positioning statement. There are a lot of those templates I guess that we follow—steps, formulas—to get us there.


Mark Kuhn: OK, I like that. Yeah, any others that you could share with the listeners? Even just that people-watching one was really good, but they won’t have access to your templates but beyond that— 


Adam Morgan: Yeah that’s fair.


Mark Kuhn: Yeah.


Adam Morgan: Oh man I was ill-prepared to answer that one.


Mark Kuhn: [Laughs]


Adam Morgan: What other—give a random insight—what was it? There are things that I’m  thinking about right now of like the maturity scale of a creative department—whether it’s in-house or at an agency—and there’s like four steps to that that I would think through of like, OK, here’s like a good, it’s not a template, but just a framework, I guess is maybe the right word?


Mark Kuhn: Framework, yeah. 


Adam Morgan: Is that what you’re looking for, for like frameworks? Or like a Whelm Scale that I could talk to you about? Or is it just like truths, like human truths?


Mark Kuhn: I like your Whelm Scale. thinking more on the side of—I think of Emma Coats, those 22 Rules as oblique strategies. I know it’s not the oblique strategies, but it’s “Let’s watch a Disney film in reverse.” Maybe not get as much of the story out of it, but if you played that story in reverse, do I pull insights from that as a way to expose myself to new—? 

I think we had said when you’re creating a creative campaign, part of it has to change—that’s the innovative part. For this, it’s lets just throw different pieces in a different order and see what sticks.


Adam Morgan: Yeah, and maybe more of those are just tactics and life tricks that you’re using, such as people-watching.


Mark Kuhn: [Hums in agreement]


Adam Morgan: I mean, for me, some of the things that I definitely use is my notebooks. I have these creative notebooks that I’ve carried around with me since 1996.


Mark Kuhn: Yeah. Yeah. 


Adam Morgan: And if you wanna talk like analytical and nerdy, I have them all labeled. One through 31, whatever, when the date it started— 


Mark Kuhn: Right.


Adam Morgan: —which projects I’m working on. But the reason I why bring that up is I am constantly like I am . . . the front of the book versus back of the book. The back of the book is where I throw rando ideas all the time.


Mark Kuhn: Yeah. Yeah. 


Adam Morgan: If it’s people-watching, if it’s just me sitting there, just sitting in the shower or driving or whatever. When just you kind of are chill, ideas come up all the time for books, for movies, for products, or whatever. So I am just constantly just jotting down those things and then I have a system of if something I think is really good or bad I rate them. And I go to the well all the time going back to those notebooks. 


Mark Kuhn: Yeah.


Adam Morgan: It’s almost like the movie Se7en where they find this guy’s lair where it’s just all this crazy writing in all of this little books. 


Mark Kuhn: [Laughs]


Adam Morgan: I feel like I’m that often. Because like I’m just writing all of these notes all the time.


Mark Kuhn: Oh, I love it.


Adam Morgan: It’s helpful, like I can always go back. And just writing it down helps solidify it, so I don’t lose it. There have been so many times I’m about to fall asleep, and ideas come. And if I don’t write down, they’re gone like 100 percent gone.


Mark Kuhn: It’s such a fascinating point that you’ve brought up this is something we’ve seen in our own team and almost with every other creative person who has consistent success, which I characterize your success as consistent— 


Adam Morgan: Wow, that’s great to hear. Thank you.


Mark Kuhn: —is there’s capture of—cos you don’t get to choose when it’s on or off—creativity. I think there’s process you can put behind it to put yourself in the right place. I know that we do that here. You can shut certain things out, you can put yourself in the right mood. But like you said when you’re going to bed, if you just happen to have a great idea for your next book title, you wanna be able to capture that. 

And this is something so many of our peers, I think, to self-aggrandizingly say that, is so many of our peers is they capture everything. And it’s either in a notebook, or it’s in a piece of software, or it’s this Zettelkasten where three by five cards, because it’s all about association. It’s a numbers game at a certain point.


Adam Morgan: Yeah. and looking at the word on the wall behind you—innovation—that’s what we’re really talking about, here. For me, ideas, it came down to several things: number one, training myself to brainstorm better. To come up with ideas, and to come up with them faster—and I can talk about that in a second. And then making sure that I create the right environment like you said so that I can encourage that more often, and writing it down.


Mark Kuhn: Yeah.


Adam Morgan: If you’re missing some of those, if I don’t create the right environment at a business, the chance of ideas happening are less. Because either people are scared, or they’re worried, or they’re worked too hard, or it’s just there’s not that opportunity for your subconscious to kick in. 


Mark Kuhn: Yeah.


Adam Morgan: And if you don’t write it down, it’s lost forever. And if your not in the beginning if you haven’t trained yourself to fill the well, to tap into all that stuff— 


Mark Kuhn: [Hums in agreement]


Adam Morgan:—then forget it. I’ll tell you, one thing that really helped me early on in my career, there was a book that I read Jumpstart Your Brain by—what was his name—Jim something.


Mark Kuhn: Yeah.


Adam Morgan: But it was all about— 


Mark Kuhn: We’ll find it and we’ll put it in a link.


Adam Morgan: Yeah yeah yeah. I can give you more of that. But it was all about this idea, more often than not, when we’re innovating or creating or whatever it is, we’re brain draining. We’re just going to the well and trying to pull something out of a hat. And part of what I learned from him is that if you change your mindset where you’re looking for clues and filling the well and looking for these connections, you can do it a lot faster. 

For example, I could easily just say, “OK, if I wanna come up with an idea for Paris and the World Tennis Tour.”  Normally to innovate, you would sit back and just be thinking about all of that and hoping that an idea comes. But a process to improve that I’ve done is well, “OK I’ll just write a list of everything I can think of that has everything to do with Paris. And then I’ll write a list of everything I can think of that has to do with tennis.” And then once those are out it’s just mind-mapping. There’s other exercises you can do, but then you’re just looking and trying to make connections and I may say you say, “Oh good, the Eiffel tower and the tennis racquet both look the same shape.” Right?


Mark Kuhn: Right.


Adam Morgan: That’s a famous ad someone came up with. So it’s a matter of like creating those systems in play so that you can make those associations faster cos everyone’s brain is fast like— 


Mark Kuhn: Yeah.


Adam Morgan: —no one has like a super slow (to himself) OK, I shouldn’t say that. 

Most of us have a fast enough brain that even as we’re going through our social feed we know when we like something, we don’t like something in a nanosecond. And so creating moments where the fodder is there in front of you and your brain can quickly make those associations, you’ll make connections faster, ideas faster, and then be able to be more of a machine and increase your odds of success throughout your career. 


Mark Kuhn: So that’s also a very salient point, this idea that when you’re sitting down. And we call it—I don’t think it’s unique to Oat Foundry—convergent versus divergent thinking. 

And the divergent thinking is this: it’s a numbers game and we’re trying to create as many as possible—so that’s the hit the gas pedal. And then convergence is let’s critique those and put them together and analyze them and turn on that left-brain-thinking of being more logical. 

And you really, if you’re trying to do both of those at the same time. Task switching it just annihilates both of those. And hearing you say, I love hearing you say it too, because it’s something that we try to practice here with big pieces of white paper that we put out on the table. And you just write as many ideas as you can. 

I wanna go back to something you had said, Adam, which is: “Creating the environment for your team to be creative.” Give me some more about that. Give me some more are there ground rules that you do? Is there a culture that you like to propagate?


Adam Morgan: You know this is an interesting conversation. I actually was talking with someone yesterday about if you think about all of the most quote-unquote creative companies in the world, right, what really makes them creative? Or can you really believe that they are really truly creative? 

It would be fascinating if you could do this study to dig into their internal environments to see if the story we’re being told really maps with if they’re really being creative internally or if it’s just a story. I think the answer to your question of the environment. I feel like the job of a creative leader is to build that environment. 

And that’s both physical and emotional. It’s not just say, “Hey, OK go out and get a bunch of cool tables.” I remember the first agency I worked—  


Mark Kuhn: [Laughs] 


Adam Morgan: In ‘96 it was all just like doing this cool 90s design and the walls weren’t straight, none of the hallways were straight, it was all just like, the environment was very creative and cool. But it was a very cutthroat environment where ten teams would be pit against each other for one TV spot and people were like hoarding all of their ideas and hiding it. Cos it was like if you got an idea sold you would get a promotion, if you didn’t you’d lose your job, so it was like they had the physical part— 


Mark Kuhn: Sounds awful.


Adam Morgan: —but they did not have the emotional part. And so creating emotional environment, to me, it has a lot of elements. Number one, it’s an element of trust. Read Leaders Eat Last from Senek and you’ll get all about that part of making people feel comfortable. 

But it’s also, to me, it’s not just like if you make a zen—everyone feels comfortable—that’s not enough. There still has to be a little bit of that pressure. Not the extreme where you’re 10 teams competing, but not so much so that there’s like no pressure at all, that it’s just free-willing and fine. You have to have some ownership. You have to feel like you are invested in something. You have to feel like there’s accountability, which is like that pressure I’m talking about. You’ve gotta produce something and there’s expectations and a bar. 

So I don’t think it’s just all just zen-love. It’s just having the right elements. Is there the training? Is there the environment of trust? Is there an environment of accountability? Is there a set of standards of what we’re working towards—so that it’s almost like the flow state. Have you ever seen the theory on flow state? It’s gotta be hard that is challenging you and not super easy, but gotta be like right there in the middle and then if you can get there in that flow state you’ll have better ideas—  


Mark Kuhn: You get the magic. 


Adam Morgan: —that’s what it is yeah.


Mark Kuhn: And that’s, I had a question of like what role does leadership play in innovation and I think you touched on it. It’s the leader’s responsibility to create that environment and be the banner carrier of that culture of support, of a little bit of friendly pressure. Not necessarily cutthroat demands and of the emotional state to foster that. So when you start to see the good, supporting the good, and when you start to see the bad, gently correcting the bad.


Adam Morgan: Yeah, and to answer that earlier question of like what’s the role of leadership? And for me, the role of leadership and what I could call creativity, and you could say the same thing for innovation, that’s managing down. That’s helping my team and getting it down. 

There’s still two other parts. I still have to manage sideways and I have to manage up. So the role of the leader is managing up. Meaning I’ve gotta show a vision, I’ve gotta be able to sell up to whoever— the owners or the stakeholders, whoever it is—I’ve gotta convince, I’ve gotta have relationships, I’ve got to have do all of that. And then sideways it’s a lot of operations: Do I have the right systems in place? Do I have the right flow? Am I working with all the right people and partners? Are the projects moving forward? There’s just a lot of logistics on that middle layer. And also the relationships with your peers so that you’re building the right environment where you’re getting what you need for your team and you’re giving what the team needs to give to others in order to have good growth. So there is so much more to the whole process of being an innovative or creative leader, but those are some of the elements for sure.


Mark Kuhn: I think we’re a little bit lucky for our team because it’s a little bit smaller and we don’t have to manage as many side or up, like those relationships. And part of that has come through and we realize that we needed a director of innovation. 

And at many companies, we see that that role is simply head product designer, maybe, or its a recruiter for new talent, new talented people, and the role. The responsibilities for us was—because of what you said the agency in the 90s was—we’re doing innovation, but really it’s a cutthroat environment to generate new creative. 

And in our case, its products. For John, who’s my partner here at Oat Foundry, his role as director of innovation is to basically research and expose himself to as many different ideologies and practices in innovation, and then fundamentally change policies at Oat Foundry that directly affect company culture. And one of the biggest ones was we switched to unlimited PTO. And that’s not because that’s what every other tech company was doing. It was if we can give employees the ability to say, “It’s a beautiful day outside and I need to go out and wander around”—this like purposeful wandering—became part of the MO here. 

Oat Foundry’s headquarters is at an abandoned munitions factory here in Philadelphia. And one of our first purposeful wandering tasks was wander around and find workarounds in this complex. Find places where someone said, “Hey this needs to be supported in a different way,” or, “This fence isn’t latching properly,” because really workarounds are such a great opportunity for a new product. In this case, smaller scale, to engender some of those connections. But the idea was—to get back to it—the specific role here is all about changing culture. To be focused around ideation and creating a bandwidth, a large river of associative ideas.


Adam Morgan: Well I hope you could make that work— 


Mark Kuhn: [Laughs]


Adam Morgan: I’ve seen the unlimited PTO. When it’s like a tech company, it’s easy it makes sense, but when it’s a service industry or like an agency or something, it’s really hard. I applaud you and I hope you could make that work. That’s awesome.


Mark Kuhn: Yeah, I’ll tell you our experience so far has been what tech companies have which is we have to ask employees like, “You need to go on vacation. It’s ok to take time.” 


Adam Morgan: [Laughs] Yeah.


Mark Kuhn: And with Covid that has thrown a wrench in that whole mix as well. There’s an added element to it. I’m gonna change the board behind me to my welcome screen because I thought it would be nice to say “HI ADAM” on here.


Adam Morgan: [Laughs]


Mark Kuhn: And we can put on whatever you want, this eight characters before the end of the podcast. But I wanted to switch gears for a second because I liked in your book—I think you had Gary V’s line that “We’re all media companies”, and so this is a specific question for you. 

So it’s a sort of a meta-question is how do you manage all of your creative identities? You know, there’s Adam the author, there’s Adam the podcaster, you have a fantastic website Is this all part of being an executive creative director at Adobe or is it all unique to you? Do they blend? Do you even make a distinction between them?


Adam Morgan: A lot of good questions there. I would say, for the most part, all of those side things, you know—and there’s probably others that I haven’t told you, don’t have insight to—but I have a lot of irons in a lot of fires. 


Mark Kuhn: [Hums in agreement]


Adam Morgan: Probably just because of, I don’t know, maybe I have ADD, I don’t know but I think it’s just because I was raised in the agency world and it was: “Go go go go’” constantly. Like I was used to that pace. And so even if I’m in an environment like now at Adobe where it’s a fast pace, but it’s not like it doesn’t take up all of my energy. So I have excess that I just push into stuff. 

And I think the core of it, for me, is that I found out that I’m not great at sitting down and watching TV and so, therefore, like a lot of people, that just takes a lot of time. And so at nights, I’m like “Uh what do I do?” You know? So I read books, play games, write things, design things—whatever it is, you know—to get it going. But all those other side things—the speaking, the books—here’s another truth that I found for myself: a lot of people build that as a side hustle.

And then they’re using the book as a, you know, a way to get, I don’t know, to go out and get jobs as someone, coming in as an expert and doing whatever. But I really—after a couple years of the speaking circuit and meeting a lot of other entrepreneur authors doing that, and I want nothing to do with that. I love my job at Adobe and I think it’s a fantastic company and they take good care of me. So I would rather do that full-time. And then all this other stuff—books, speaking, everything—it’s just for fun. Just cos it’s like, you know, I don’t know, you get over the hump of your career—

[Clears throat]  Excuse me. 

I’ve been doing this 25 years and I’m thinking, I don’t know, you know, “How many more years are there? Probably not another 25.” And so it’s a matter of I’ve come to terms that like my role is to build a foundation for this new upcoming kind of generation of creative leadership. And I want to give all the tools that I had to like struggle and fight and figure out on my own. I just want to like have it out there so that people don’t have to struggle like that. And then I’m excited to see where things can go. 

Because creative leaders in the past—let’s say if you look at brands—they were just like a set of hands back in the cave and only at agency could you thrive. And then with the design-led revolution and design-thinking, it’s like suddenly people got the idea that innovation or creativity could have a seat at the table. And now I see that it’s like “OK great.”  But if you still look at a board of directors it’s like 90% finance and operations and you got one token creative there, that is progress. And so for me, I still want to see like what’s the next step? Can we get where creativity isn’t? Just like okay it’s a checkbox on my board, but instead it’s like I’m seeing some people break off and start companies who have like a creative mindset. 

But like I believe in ideas so much that I want to see the future where all these creative leaders are like running companies and making big decisions and doing all these great things and really changing the world in a bigger, better way rather than it just being run by finance or MBAs or all of that. So that’s kind of where I see “Why?”  My big “Why?” is like I gotta help prepare for all that so that the world can be in a better place for creativity because I really do believe in creativity and ideas.


Mark Kuhn: I love that answer. It resonates with me personally because my background’s mechanical engineering, so I would be on the, “Maybe innovate as my leg of that chair” versus design productivity—  


Adam Morgan: Yeah.


Mark Kuhn: —but anytime I’m asked to speak at a school or something—any opportunity I have to convince a kid to be an engineer—I will absolutely take it. Or design-focused. But I have to say, cos I love the bit in the book about being a central-brain person. I find myself being, “I feel like a central. I still have an intel corpus callosum, but I feel like a central-brain person.” 


Adam Morgan: [Laughs] 


Mark Kuhn: And I’d love the culture switch at Oat Foundry to be focused on the power of ideas and building a process where we get to keep doing that because it’s very exhilarating to be a part of. But I do find at least in my current role at Oat Foundry the seductive draw of the numbers where I find myself in some of these discussions saying “Well, what’s the output of this?” 

And you know, John, who’s my partner, we get good tension with that where he’ll say “The output will just be a big lot of ideas” or “It’s going to be a body of work. I’m not going to promise you a new product by this point. I’m not going to promise you a new revenue stream by this point.” 

And so I have to kind of have to have my own settling period to say, “You know, it’s okay that we can take a breath and work through this,” because the guiding principle from the outset is we know we’re going to get value from this. From even just having the right people in the room—the smart people in the room—and having more ideas rather than fewer ideas. It will guaranteed lead to something good. 


Adam Morgan: Oh yeah. And I’m not saying that you can’t have structure, and you can’t process. That’s not it at all. It’s like, how do you infuse creativity into whatever structure? Into the way that you create things? If you’ve read the Infinite Game by Simon Sinek—there’s another good example—just like long-term, not finite thinking, but infinite thinking. That’s the area I want to play. So it’s not displacing finance, it’s not just displacing good business structure, but it’s infusing creativity into it where you identify as a creative but still use those other tools to help you get there. 


Mark Kuhn: So I wanted to ask you a question, and I think you actually kind of answered it in a roundabout way. I was going to say what steps do you personally take to de-stress? Is it music on? Is it yoga? Do you hang with your kids? Is it drinking Pepto-Bismol? 

What I heard was, no it’s not TV-watching. It’s actually this process of creation; it’s very cathartic in some ways, but maybe there’s more under—  


Adam Morgan: There’s more. Oh sure. You’ve got, everyone’s got to have an out.


Mark Kuhn: Yeah. 


Adam Morgan: I would say I have an obsession with board games. Strategic board games.  


Mark Kuhn: [hums in agreement] Yeah.


Adam Morgan: I’ve designed a few. Won some awards in the board game design world. I have a massive collection of like, I don’t know, 350 plus Eurogames— 


Mark Kuhn: Amazing.


Adam Morgan: —in a room dedicated to board games. And so, my poor family and kids—it’s like once a week minimum we have to at least play a big, long, thoughtful board game. But that’s my downtime for sure—games. Just because there’s so much thought in like game theory. When you put game theory in with experiences, man, there’s so many parallels. 


Mark Kuhn: I love, I like board games and we’re huge fans of board games. Here we have probably a half dozen here. But then John has a couple hundred at his house. Just to see the nuances, let alone the creative—you have a plotline, and card art, and peace art—but game mechanics, and how you can break game mechanics if you play improperly, and the communities that form around these, and also how interactive. Like if you’re playing with your friends or your family. 

Anyone can watch TV and talk about TV. That’s fine, that’s certainly an activity. But when you sit around a table and you play a board game, you really get a much broader dynamic of emotional response from everyone you’re with. 


Adam Morgan: You know, here’s another thing: I think humans are just dynamic, that we have a lot of things that we care about. I also rock climb a lot. I’m very much into the outdoors, that’s my physical aspect of it. 


Mark Kuhn: Yeah.


Adam Morgan: I think it’s just like a character in a book: you’ve got to have at least those three pillars of just unique things that you care about that make you who you are. That’s your unique combination. 


Mark Kuhn: Yeah.


Adam Morgan: I’m sure if we looked at all of us, hopefully, most of us have like, whatever, like three distinct things that we’re into that make a weird combination. But I think it’s fun.


Mark Kuhn: Gosh, mine’s probably cooking. I find that to be a very regenerative activity—chopping vegetables— and nourishing, but from an emotional sense, not necessarily just a physical sense. 


Adam Morgan: Maybe what type of cooking? Because some people are into baking, some people are into sweets, some people are into grilling—there’s still so many subcategories of that. 


Mark Kuhn: Right that’s different. Vastly different subcategories. No, that’s a great answer. And have you been rock climbing a lot? Do you try different, let me be specific about my question, do you find yourself in an activity that regenerates you like rock climbing? Do you find yourself being where you’re trying to find harder, and better, and faster, and bigger inclines, and you know, harder trails to go bolder on? Or is it like “No, I have my tried and true. I have the ones I like, and I’m going to stick to the ones I like.”


Adam Morgan: It’s kind of a combo. Early on in my life, like in the 90s, it was: “Push push push” and: “Try harder things.” You know, climb 12d, 12b was probably the top I ever got to. 


Mark Kuhn: Yeah. 


Adam Morgan: But now, for me, I’m getting in my late 40s. it’s all about “Do I have the stamina?” So it’s like going to enough of the middle-level ones and then going to the gym in the winter. And luckily they swap out the roots all the time, so it is always finding new stuff. So whether it’s there or on the real rock for me, it’s just the physical aspect and the height and just the friends that I’m with. There are a lot of angles to it.


Mark Kuhn: I think and the reason I asked this question because—and I don’t know how you would do it, I think with rock climbing, it’s maybe a different challenge than cooking—I’ve had people say “Oh, have you ever thought about starting a restaurant or starting a lunch truck?” or something like that. 


Adam Morgan: [Laughs]


Mark Kuhn: And I was divided by this philosophy: if you’re good at it, don’t do it for free, but if you love it, don’t do it for money. And that was one where I was referencing ambition. When it comes to a pursuit like that, because I think inherently, many of us are ambitious people. But you don’t want to kill the fun of it by having too much ambition. 


Adam Morgan: That’s totally fair, and maybe it’s even like: “I love my day job, I’m very ambitious about that,” but you have to have your release or your fun. And so keeping that as a separate thing I think is really important for balance and life for sure.


Mark Kuhn: Yeah. 


Adam Morgan: You probably could make cooking your thing, but it’s almost like “I want to protect that and make sure that’s the relaxation. So I put the stress-energy into something else I may love, but it doesn’t have to be something I don’t love.”


Mark Kuhn: Yeah. So you’ve given us really good innovation homework. Innovation homework is something we’ve been doing at Oat Foundry where we release them weekly and they’re typically very short assignments. Less than ten minutes. 

We’ve done one, one of my favorites is 30 uses for a brick, where it’s to unlearn the convergent philosophy of “Well, bricks a building material. it’s only used for building.” if you start saying things like, “A brick could be. We could make a bike frame out of a brick.” It starts firing the neurons in weirder directions where it gets very exciting, very quickly. And the idea there is that it’s really just a numbers game. We’re not trying to actually design a bike frame out of a brick. But we want you to keep digging, digging, digging, digging, digging until we have all these things that we can associate together. The idea is not to criticize. 

The homework that I pulled from our interaction today, Adam, is people-watch. Go out and people-watch and give us a character. Sit there for 20 minutes and observe. A lot of this process of, when we talk about innovation at Oat Foundry, it’s a process of firing all your senses and gathering information and then figuring out how to understand that. So do you have any follow-ups for that homework? Because I think we’re actually— 


Adam Morgan: Yeah. I would look for the why. The why—not just not just observing—and saying, “Okay, people do this a lot, people do that a lot, I see this guy always doing ‘X’.”  But think through the why, the motivation. 

If you’re in stage performances or drama or TV, it’s always like “What’s my motivation? What’s my motivation?” So that’s what I’d look for. What’s the why? Why are people doing that? Why do they want that in their experience? And I think the more you can dig into that, man, that would make you great at innovation, great at creativity, great design, because you have that empathy. You understand you’re going after what the need is and then you can solve that. But look for the why. 


Mark Kuhn: Look for the why. I’m very excited to do this one. We’re coming up on the end of our time together. I wanted to ask, do you have any parting words for our listeners or any last insights about innovation? And about creativity and about design?


Adam Morgan: Yes. Read. I think the biggest thing that we can do collectively—and I always say to my team—if you want to lead you have to read. I would say go out and read. Listen. Listen to podcasts like this. Listen to anything else you can and just soak up everything about creativity and ideas and innovation and all that stuff. And that will just propel you forward. It’ll give you that excitement and give you tips and tricks on how to do it better yourself. But I think we just need more of us doing it. So read and listen.


Mark Kuhn: Could not agree more. What I’ll say to everyone who’s listening is we’re going to put links to all of Adam’s thought-leadership—his website, his podcast, his books—at the bottom,  non-affiliate links. So feel free to check him out. He’s got a ton of great things to say. I think we even touched on the Whelm Scale, it’s one that we’ve used at Oat Foundry. We didn’t even dive into that. So for all you PMs out there, managers out there, check out the Whelm Scale to give you some insight. I think that’s on the blog. 

Adam Morgan, thank you so much for being with us today. Just really, really over the moon. Thank you.


Adam Morgan: You bet. Thanks for having me. 


Mark Kuhn: Absolutely. Best of family, take care, and we’ll talk soon. 


Adam Morgan: Alright. We’ll see you. 


Mark Kuhn: Take care. 

Mark Kuhn: Thank you so much for watching and listening. We really hope you enjoyed the discussion. Please take a few minutes to comment below who you want us to speak with next. We’re always looking for interesting people. If you want to like and subscribe, you can go ahead and do that, too, but really the comments are what help. So go ahead and put something down there. Can be anyone. Thanks very much.