Oct 12, 2020

What I learned leading P&G’s innovation lab

What I learned leading P&G’s innovation lab

his post begins a series of articles describing what I learned leading P&G’s innovation lab, the clay street project. There was so much learning about what did and didn’t work, and how it's shaped our thinking at Hello Creativity! that it will take several posts to fully explore.  

In this post I will describe the origins of the clay street project while future posts will describe learning and insights in more detail.

The quest for a different way to innovate

In the early 2000’s P&G CEO AG Lafley was dissatisfied with P&G’s results and was looking for different ways to innovate. As part of a cultural transformation he asked Claudia Kotchka, Head of Design, to understand who had truly different approaches to innovation. Claudia formed a team to explore and visit organizations of all sizes.  

Through a connection with Ivy Ross, the team visited Mattel's 'Project Platypus’ and saw that the approach was different than anything they had seen before. Platypus had many other corporate visitors but David Kuehler, the head of Project Platypus, knew the P&G team was serious because they participated fully in the rather unusual experiences. In 2004 David joined P&G to start a new innovation lab - the clay street project - that built off the learning from Project Platypus. It was the start of an unusual and productive journey for P&G.

1340 Clay Street 2012.jpeg

The clay street project was established in an old laundry building in a gritty Cincinnati neighborhood, about one mile from P&G headquarters. The location was important to get teams into a different environment, out of the prevailing corporate norms and habits, to provide them with experiences that helped them see, think and solve differently.

The space was very different than the P&G corporate environment. Important to the work and space was improvisation, storytelling and ritual. When teams enter, the space and work is configured especially for them, including books on the shelves, stimulus in the space and the rituals regarding who can and can’t enter the space. These rituals, implicit and explicit, were intended to create a kind of ‘sacred space’ for teams to connect, see differently and discover new solutions.


The clay street project was rooted in the following beliefs:

  • We believe in the power of teams - they are more powerful than the sum of their parts
  • We believe that people thrive in relationship
  • We believe that creativity isn’t the domain of a chosen few - it is part of being human
  • We believe in playful spirit
  • Unleash the potential of people and amazing innovation will follow

From a logistical standpoint, clay street maintained a few session principles:

  • Strong senior sponsorship and belief in the team - teams must be supported
  • Teams are diverse and multi-functional - everyone needed to crack the challenge
  • Teams are singularly dedicated to the challenge - no competing priorities
  • Leadership visits are intentionally scheduled - ‘drop-ins’ don’t help the team

Evolution and Transformation

I’ve identified four phases in the life of the clay street project, which worked primarily with P&G businesses but also with community and non-profit organizations.  

1. Long Sessions and DNA Alpha

The first phase of clay street focused on transforming P&G brands and organizations through long 8-12 week sessions, which were substantial commitments that were applied to the most pressing business problems. These sessions were intensively programmed and created different cultural and logistical conditions under which teams worked and solved. Examples of sessions include Herbal Essences, Pampers, Olay, and North America Feminine Care. Because of the long duration of sessions, clay street created different cultural conditions under which teams solved, a dynamic that had positive and negative implications that I will discuss in later posts. As a by-product of these sessions, leadership noticed that returning teams were working differently and asked for help with intact leadership teams, including an experimental 15-month series with Western European Fabric Care leadership. The focus on long sessions continued until the 2009 recession, which called for a re-evaluation of session scope and business needs.

Learning from the first phase includes: finding fresh solutions requires teams to break out of their day-to-day mindset and see with new eyes; the belief “Unleash the potential of people and amazing innovation will follow’ is indeed true and; the challenges of integrating brilliant ideas into an established organization are complex and nuanced.

2. Experiment and Turnaround

Phase 2 of clay street (during which I came in as leader) saw the creation of two different but connected streams of work based on learning from the previous work. One the one hand, a series of shorter sessions were created to met the needs of businesses and caused us to re-examine and re-integrate approaches with the most impact. A highly optimized two-week ‘Shift’ session emerged as the primary offering while brief 1-3 day sessions helped solving and leadership teams connect and frame problems. Longer sessions were less frequent but were commissioned to create and redesign P&G organizations (including P&G Brand and Communications sessions that I led). On the other hand, business interest grew in how we might co-create cultures of productivity, resulting in ‘Project DNA’ with P&G’s Prestige Beauty business over 18 months as a joint effort with the clay street staff and P&G’s design thinking leader.

Learning from this phase includes; short-duration sessions can have a transformational impact on teams, leaders and ideas; to transform an organization ‘pick a slice’, ‘work all levels’ and ‘build capability’ (more in a future post) and; requiring an innovation lab to be self-funded discourages the building of capability and sharing of best-practices.

3. Projects to Ecosystems

The third phase of the clay street project saw the convergence of two streams of work into a strategy we called “from Projects to Ecosystems”. We continued to refine and practice the mainstay 2-week Shift sessions to work business initiatives to great effect and impact, including helping teams to reframe Dish Care and Family Care strategies, and multiple Fabric Care teams to solve focused innovation challenges. Also impactful were the shorter sessions to connect teams and frame problems that included hosting brand building capability leaders and the leadership team of David Taylor (now P&G CEO) to help them connect and frame the core issues facing the business. Having practiced the power of engagements over time, our other work stream - defining cultures of innovation - built off the DNA pilot principles to ‘pick a slice’, ‘work all levels’ and ‘build capability’ (more in a future post) to created an “Innovation Masters” curriculum for Fabric Care FEI leadership. Combining all previous session offerings we worked with Fabric Care organization over the course of 18 months to co-create and discover the culture of innovation that was right for them. The result was one of the most robust innovation portfolios in P&G.

Learning from this phase includes: short, well-programmed engagements can bring about transformational shifts in thinking; cultures of innovation are the result of intentional co-creation and discovery over time and; convincing a leader to engage a multi-functional team in a two-week intensive can be challenging, even if they’ve been working the problem for over a year.

4. Dissolution and Integration

The final phase of clay street was its dissolution in 2018 as a formal entity and integration into the GrowthWorks platform that P&G is using to manage current business and future growth. Karen Hershenson, the last leader of the clay street project, is a leader of P&G’s GrowthWorks and continues to bring clay street practices and learning to life to embed innovation into the DNA of P&G.

Learning from clay streets final phase: organizations that strive to be innovative cannot outsource innovation - it must be in the DNA; there are many paths (more in a later post) and; people, human-centered solving and integration at the core of sustained innovation.


The clay street project was a wonderful space but, more than that, it taught powerful beliefs, ways of working and business practices that transformed people, brands and organizations and resulted in billions of dollars in revenue. While clay street no longer exists as an innovation lab, the practices live on through those who experienced and now practice a better way of working, and through the practices being integrated into P&G’s DNA.

Duncan, Rich and I each had powerful clay street experiences and were changed by them. Much of what we do at Hello Creativity! has been shaped by what we learned were through those experiences, in addition to our years working in line business and capability-building roles, and programming and facilitating human-centered sessions in a number of for-profit and non-profit organizations.  

In subsequent posts I will describe additional learning from clay street and P&G including  

  • Innovation fallacies
  • Creating the conditions
  • Innovation as an ecosystem
  • Discovering a culture of innovation