Breaking the Rules : An Interview with Chris Denson

Ariba Jahan

What makes something innovative? How do you enable and foster innovation? Chris Denson explores these exact questions on his podcast “Innovation Crush”, where he has garnered 700,000 listeners and interviewed some of the biggest innovators like Daymond John, Linda Boff, Alexis Ohanian, Rob Dyrdek and Cindy Gallop.

Launched in 2013, his conversations spotlight the lives and projects of rulebreakers across all types of industries — from neuroscience to marketing. After four years running the innovation practice at Omnicom Media Group (OMD), he is continuing to catalyze innovation as a consultant at the intersection of Fortune 500 brands, startups, and marketing.

Denson has compiled his immense learnings from his own work and meaningful podcast interviews into his book Crushing the Box, which shares wisdom and stories from his experiences and those of innovation rock stars to help you find your own inspired path.

So after Chris interviewed me for his podcast, it was my turn to ask him some questions. See what he had to say about defying the norms, finding inspiration and the power of friendly competition.

How would you describe what you do? You wear a lot of hats, tell us about them.

Chris Denson: Most times, I say it’s helping companies and individuals navigate the future. Fifty percent of what I do is education — providing content and insight that indicates trends and cultural psychology of what’s around the corner; and 50 percent putting that into action through creative marketing, product development and consulting. Technically only 2 hats, but maybe a lot of brims. Depending on who I’m talking to and what the specific needs are, the application is malleable.

There’s a ton of little factoids that truly makes us who we are, but they may not be in our LinkedIn bio. What is the unique lens that you bring to innovation?

CD: Both through necessity and curiosity, I’ve worked on a lot of different kinds of projects in my life. I coached a swim team, I produced music videos, I worked in property management, I’m a parent and I’ve worked at The White House. As a result, I’ve experienced many different walks of life, and I’ve tried to participate and add value to each of them. At the center of all my work, I explore the basic human needs of the people I’m working for, with, or in service of — which are all often one in the same. The means of satisfying those human needs always changes, whether it’s Facebook, artificial intelligence, yoga or a much-needed conversation. Meanwhile, almost every organization promises to cater to one or more of these needs. I think if you truly understand what makes people tick — the creative possibilities are endless.

What was the inspiration and driving force behind your book?

CD: Conversations like this, honestly. I get asked often, how innovation comes to life. What are the best practices? What are some good examples? Who’s doing it well? Who sucks? I’ve been lucky enough to gather the experience of close to 200 visionaries on my show, and couple that with my triumphs and failures working with startups, brands and service organizations. Conversations and projects are more easily forgotten. But a tool to go back and reference time and again is something I thought might be valuable. Not to mention, that as much as these are business-related concepts, they’re just as much life philosophy as well. I also felt like as a kid growing up in Detroit and a former entertainer, my voice in this space was unique.

I love the 10 metaphors that are the titles of your chapters, like “Swim Like an Otter” and “Put Women in Their Place.” How did those come about?

CD: My creative lens has always been to take a concept we’re all familiar with and give it new meaning. Sometimes that’s as simple as a pun. Other times, it’s saying why can’t we use augmented reality for tattoos. Simultaneously, I’ve always learned best that way, through comparative statistics or drawing parallels from other disciplines. So each chapter title is a concept that flips a particular construct that we might already be familiar with and filters it through a whole new lens. Plus, most of them are rooted in real-life career moments or anecdotes from my guests, and in some cases offer up new rules of the game that may not have come to the forefront of the conversation before. Lastly, it’s just more fun! At least I hope it is, to talk about things like eating your own brain, or swimming like an otter, or becoming a mercenary, rather than words we find in white papers.

Out of the 10 essential rules, which ones do companies struggle with the most? Why?

CD: I’d say either “Assemble a Caper Crew” or “Eat Your Brain.” The first refers to building an innovation practice. Lots of organizations say they want to, or attempt to do so, but it’s easier said than done, and few do it to their fullest potential. The latter is more about creating and continuing a spirit of experimentation and exploration. Giant companies are having their lunch eaten by small startups, or at the very least becoming less culturally relevant than they were a decade a go, or in some cases, last week.

What keeps you up at night?

CD: Aside from my nightly consumption of four burritos, I’d have to say friendly competition. I love discovering cool products and projects, and then thinking, “Dammit! I should’ve done that on [insert project here].” Especially if they involve friends or colleagues or clients. I saw a video once where Michael Jordan was in a locker room with Dikembe Mutombo and a bunch of others Jordan era hoop stars. Dikembe kept telling Michael Jordan, “you never dunked on me.” The video then cuts to their next game in the season, where Jordan dunks on Mutombo and gives Mutombo his own signature “no-no-no” finger afterward. You could tell they were friends, and they were also making each other better. I think the same thing happens with creativity, every time you encounter it, it inspires you to be better.

At the end of your podcast, you ask everyone to define innovation. Let’s get yours.

CD: Innovation is reimagining and reinvention of how we interact with the things that are most important to us.

Keep an eye out for Chris Denson at the following events:

…and check out the latest episode of Innovation Crush.

Originally published at on October 19, 2018.

Ariba Jahan

Written by

Director of Innovation @ AdCouncil. Brown/ Bengali women in tech.

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