Chip Conley on Innovation

You have been regarded as one of the more innovative CEOs in the world. Beyond curiosity, are there other drivers of innovation that you’ve identified?

CC: There’s an art and a science to innovation. I think some of it is creating the habitat for great ideas to ferment and to grow, for yourself personally and for the organization. I’ve learned over the years that there are certain activities that help me get into a creative flow - running, especially on a beach, and anything related to water, like taking a bath or being in an ocean. Sometimes the best ideas come in the shower. So how do you create that creative habitat for a team? Brian Eno is a musician and he has a concept called “scenius” - it’s the idea that genius comes from the scene, and the scene meaning the certain kinds of spaces, communities, or places that create a scene or a space where genius is more likely to occur. That is, I think, part of the reason why off-sites are such a helpful way to potentially get there. If someone needs to break through a conceptual block, they might not be able to do so in an office. One part of innovation is simply understanding what the best habitat is for yourself and your team.

For Joie de Vivre, our innovative approach to creating hotels started with the very first hotel, the Phoenix - a broken-down motel in a bad neighborhood. We had a premise that every time we created a hotel, it would be based upon a magazine and five adjectives. Magazines and boutique hotels have something in common: they’re both very niche and very lifestyle oriented. When we created the Phoenix, we knew the spirit of the place would be musicians and creativity, so we decided Rolling Stone Magazine would be our touchstone for personality. We came up with five adjectives that defined Rolling Stone: funky, irreverent, adventurous, cool, and young at heart. Those five adjectives defined everything we did - from the staff we hired, to the decor, to the restaurant, the kinds of services we offered, even the name.

Over time, we learned that this is a great organizing principle to make sure everybody - the designer, the contractor, the sales team - is on the same page about the soul of the hotel. What was miraculous, and something we noticed over time, was that the people who fell in love with the hotel would have used those same five adjectives to describe themselves. The boutique hotel was, in essence, a mirror for the aspirations of the customers. That’s why I said early on in Joie de Vivre, “We are not boutique hoteliers; we are in the business of identity refreshment.” This is why people fall in love with our hotels - it refreshes their identity. In that space, they are the best version of themselves.

Innovation can benefit from structure, but structure alone doesn’t do it. There has to be a seed of inspiration and art that is driving it. The best way to plant seeds, the artful seeds that are going to grow, is to get out of your normal space. I’m not talking about off-sites - go to the zoo, or go to a museum. I actually think it’s really good to go to spaces where creativity is already happening, or things are happening, and you can think in ways that you wouldn’t have otherwise.

To see the full interview with Chip Conley, purchase a digital or print copy of Issue 2 of Conscious Company Magazine online

This article appeared in Issue 2 | Spring 2015

To see more stories like this and features on innovative disruptors such as Chip Conley, Kimbal Musk, Plum Organics, Rocky Mountain Institute, and more - purchase Issue 2 online!

Buy Issue