Christine Outram on bringing ideas to life

Christine Outram is Director of Invention at Deutsch LA where she helps brands such as esurance, Taco Bell and Volkswagen become more innovative. In doing so, she is defining new ways of advertising. Her background in architecture and design combined with a knowledge of technology, has afforded her opportunities that bring to life ideas that are both relevant and useful. Christine is a woman of action and led a team at MIT to design, develop, prototype and bring to market the Copenhagen Wheel, a simple mechanic that turns any bike into a hybrid.

What did you want to be when you grew up?
I was one of those kids who always thought that I had to know what my career was going to be and what my passion was and once I found that passion, then I'd be cool for the rest of my life. It really wasn't like that and it wasn't until I was in my twenties that I realized what I was interested in and what I was good at.

So I guess the answer is – I didn’t know! But now I know that I’m happiest when I’m working in multi-disciplinary teams and building solutions that will solve people’s problems.

Who would you most like to be stuck on a desert island with? Why?
My husband – he’s the ultimate survivor guy and he’ll get us off the island and back to civilization.

What single book has had the greatest impact on you? Why?
The book I've used the most in the last few years has been Business Model Generation by Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur. It's a wonderful way to think about how businesses operate and how we connect with people. It's had a huge impact on the way I craft the workshops that I do with other people but also the way I evaluate new ideas.

When do you go to bed and when do you get up?
I go to bed as early as I can, which is about 11:30pm and I get up at around 7am. I try not to press snooze too much. I work late and I work a lot so I usually get to work by about 9:30am, which is pretty standard.

Can you briefly explain your career path to date?
I've had a really varied career. I started out as a contemporary dancer and then moved on to architecture. During my degree I was always interested in technology and how technology shapes the way we design things for people but staying in architecture never felt right. So after I finished I applied for a few schools in the US. I was fortunate enough to get into MIT to study computation and urbanism and that was probably one of the best things that ever happened to me.

MIT's motto is “Demo or Die”. In other words, don't just talk about something, don't just make a Powerpoint of it, don't just tell your friend about it, actually go out, build it, test it and see whether it will work. That's something that has shaped the rest of my career. I just want to make things. That's how you prove something. It's not that you're not thinking as well, about the strategy and everything else, but you've got to put it into action.

After MIT, I had a consultancy that helped local government and private corporations become “more digital” and harness the data they were sitting on and make it actionable. It was all about taking the lessons from MIT and applying it to the real world. And in some ways I loved consulting because you're constantly faced with new problems and constantly diving in on new things, but the thing that didn’t suit me is that you're always advising someone on what they should do but not in there making the change yourself. It comes back to a realization that my passion was to make things, to get things into people hands so that I can have an impact.

My current position is Invention Director at the advertising agency in LA called Deutsch. Deutsch, for a long time, was a very traditional ad agency focusing mainly on TV, radio and print and we’re extremely good at that. But in recent years we have been expanding to not only do digital advertising but to also ask the question: what is advertising of the future? What does it look like when we build a product for somebody? Nike fuel band is a great example. Is it a product or is it advertising?

As Director of Invention we're always looking for ways to help our brands seize opportunities using technology so they can create new types of relationship with the people they’re interested in reaching, whether that’s building a gas price predictor for a major insurance company, or the world’s first smellable game. It's been a fun couple of years, we've got a little maker-studio where we do 3D printing and prototyping and we're lucky because we have some 50 developers on staff as well, so we build everything in-house rather than outsourcing.

The exciting thing is that every client wants to be more innovative. Every CMO and CEO has it as a focus but not many know how to act on it. Many big clients have difficulty moving quickly, that’s where we help.

What is the biggest obstacle you’ve overcome, as it relates to your career or industry?
The biggest obstacle was realizing that you don't need to decide what you're going to do before you do it. It's through doing something that you learn whether it's going to be right or not. You can sit in a room and try to decide "the thing" you're going to do in the future but that's not very helpful.

What motivates you?
I'm at my best when I'm working with smart people who are from very different backgrounds and think differently to the way that I think. Part of my job is often to corral lots of different people together and get us working towards the same north star.

What do you wish you’d known at the start of your career?
I wish I'd known that your career is your own responsibility. One of the first jobs that I took was at a very big firm and I didn't realize that your manager is so busy managing their own career and projects that it's hard for them to always have you top of mind. So if you've got a problem it's your responsibility to find a way to talk to your manager, your peers or whomever about the problem that you have.

It’s vital not to be shy, quiet or waiting for someone else to hand you something because you think you deserve it. If you're feeling uncomfortable, then that has to be voiced. A lot of the time, especially as a manager, I don't know what people are thinking. I like to think I'm pretty good at reading my colleagues and understanding when they're not happy but it's a two way street to communicate with each other. I’m all for less hierarchy and more humans communicating their needs.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
The thing I am most proud of was leading a project called The Copenhagen Wheel. It’s a hub that plugs and plays into any bike and turns it into a hybrid electric bike with re-generative braking. It was wonderful leading that project and working closely with the city of Copenhagen on getting it designed and built. It taught me how to run fast, how to prototype, all the kinds of lean start-up mantra that is currently around, we were living it. Getting the patent on the design and knowing that it’s coming to market this year is so rewarding.

What do you believe has been the key to your success?
Getting over self-consciousness and getting over a fear of failure. 

What is your life motto?
Less talky, More make-y

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
I’ve been blessed with some great mentors who have provided their wisdom over the years.

One of my mentors, William J Mitchell at MIT, told me it's not just about writing words, it's about painting a picture. He was a very eloquent writer and had written many books. Since then I've tried to make my writing a little less scientific and a little more emotive.

Another great mentor and old boss, a guy called Bud Cadell, told me change is a political game. That's definitely stuck with me as well, especially working in a big organization. It’s not that you have to be political in a bad way, but if you want to make change, if you want to be an agent for a new way of working or a new process, you can't just be ‘my way or the highway’, you really have to understand how people tick and how to operate within that system.

Who do you most admire in business? Why?
The people I admire the most are the people I've worked really closely with. These include:

Assaf Biderman, who now heads up the team of Copenhagen Wheel and the company SuperPedestrian. I absolutely admire him for his ability to not only go after a vision but to get people to sign on the bottom line.

Peter Hirshberg, a colleague that I used to work, because he's constantly thinking and has an incredible ability to delve into history to understand our present, and to project into the future.

Tara Greer, my current boss, because she's able to juggle so many things and yet still has time to build the culture of her team. I've had many managers who are great at what they do but not able to craft the bigger picture. Seeing her work has been really inspiring.

Do you think there's a secret to rising to the top?
Firstly, you have to question what the top means, because you're never actually at the top. I question whether we need to be seeking "a top". For me it's more about our own personal journey and personal growth. My not-so-secret-secret is just to understand how people operate and then to make things instead of talk about them. Putting a prototype in someone’s hand will mean they understand it a lot better. It also helps to be a nice person.

Who do you turn to when the going gets tough?
My husband and my best friends. I've lived in many places so I have friends in Australia, Boston, New York and LA that I call on, depending on the problem.

What are your favorite traits about women in the workplace?
I love working with people, male or female where there's a sense of transparency about what we do. There's an interest in talking about the process and how we get there. One woman I admire and have the pleasure of working with is Karen Costello. She is interested in being upfront and transparent about the way things work and there are no games.

What's next?
Make more and have more impact.

This weekend I just ran a hackathon on the drought through Deutsch and a group called Global Shapers LA, Hack for LA and the City of LA. It was so rewarding. I used to do a lot of these events and they're very tiring to organize particularly when you're running the show and not making the stuff. But we brought together over 16 teams from marketing, design, business, public policy, technology.  The outcomes are incredible and it was so exciting to see everyone getting pumped to build something in 48 hours and present it back. The energy is contagious and I'd like to have more of that in my life.


As told to Caroline Hugall over Skype on 9th June 2015. Christine is based in LA.