Paula Rosch, unsung hero in the production of innovation and culture

Paula(2) I have worked with Paula Rosch several times over the years.  So when I sat down to think about who was acting in the capacity of an unspoken Chief Culture Officer, she came to mind.

I asked Paula if she would sit down and tell me about how she helped make Kimberly-Clark a living, breathing culture, and she produced this fascinating document.  Here are some of the highlights that await you.

•    Paula is the inventor on record for some 80 patents.  We talk a lot about innovation these days, but not so much about innovators.  They remain unsung heroes.  Paula is one of these.

•    Paula’s contribution to KC’s cultural knowledge came in part from her use of “Scouts.”  Scouts, by Paula’s definition, are “behavior leaders who intuitively model new shifts in human behavior years and even decades before the mainstream population.” She looked at

“how [Scouts] lived their lives, using those observations to develop hypotheses and push them as far out as possible – allowing a lot of hang time in the abstract until the right insights and models come together to be translated into product, including serendipitous bits and pieces, all these merging together to hone in on the idea.”

•    Wow, that’s my reaction.  Wow and then some.  Some part of the genius of good product development process is captured here.  How we find new ideas and then hold them in a loose constellation until the right pattern can form.  It’s a fantastically difficult process, this is.  It’s a process of thinking everything all at once and “roughly” until some combination arrives to bring everything into sharp focus.  Wonderful.

•    But not always appreciated.  K-C’s was a traditional culture. Sometimes creativity and culture was said to be “soft.”  I have heard this from several unsung heroes.  Those who don’t understand the process call it an impressionistic, intuitive, somehow female undertaking.  Which means that the unsung hero has to do something very difficult in an environment that is sometimes laced with skepticism and sometimes hostility.  Being creative in the presence of people who are resistant, this is one of the double binds that confronts the culture creative, the CCO.

•    But at some level KC knew it needed Paula and people like her.  It was a company in transition, moving from a paper to a consumer products company.  It is impossible to climb this hierarchy from functional products to richer value propositions without cultural advice.  And that’s where Paula came in. 

•    The still larger context is the business model that the corporation had created for itself.  And as Paula notes, this was something dedicated to creating a few, massively successful products.  These days we are seeing some corporations generate many, smaller offerings in order to see what works in an inscrutable world.  (“Fail early, fail often to succeed big” being the new mantra for some.)  And this new model is I think more responsive to the spirit of creativity that Paula brings to the corporation. Paula also experienced a siloed KC, and here too there are new models of the corporation promise to make the corporation more porous and more participative. 

•    Paula notes the sensation many of us have when we return from a culture seeking (Paula’s “Scouting”) expedition.

“There is a huge universe of behaviors, practices, beliefs, insights, and attitudes – human culture – but only a small percentage of them are allowed inside the corporate doors, usually not the most portentous ones but the most easily workable.  I remember I would be so exhilarated when I would do innovative consumer or Scout research – anything was possible, until I re-entered the cement atrium of the corporate building, understood the challenges of selling new insights, and felt the air leak out before I passed the security desk."

•    Finally, Paula changed the culture at KC.  People there now routinely use language, processes and techniques she introduced.  And she continues to serve as a valued consultant. But she didn’t stay.  And this is surely one of the most urgent orders of business before the corporation now.  How to recruit people like Paula, and when you are lucky to come upon someone of her extraordinary talents, make her a permanent, honored member of the corporation.   I think people like Paula were once the badge of a corporation that was making an effort, taking a risk.  I think it’s fair to say she is now as essential to those who serve in marketing, finance and technology.  You have to have a Paula, and this means doing whatever it takes to keep her.  She is the new face of the living, breathing corporation.  And if you have a “Paula” as good as Paula, well, dude, move heaven and earth to keep her.

So, without further ado, I give you Paula’s characteristically illuminating answers to the questions I sent her.  Good reading!

Note:  I left K-C in January of 2001, so my notes represent my experiences there from 1978-2000.

1) What was your role at Kimberly-Clark?

a) I was a product developer for 22 years, the first few years as the consumer needs champion on teams that developed and introduced improvements to HUGGIES® diapers.

I was fortunate to have a special assignment not long into my career – that of developing K-C’s first Innovation Fair.  Research and Engineering had a year-old program called “Innovation Time”, allowing individuals the time to work on new ideas that might be good for the company but were outside their specific assignments.  The Innovation Fair rounded up these ideas and presented them to potential sponsors.

I mention this because this was a pivotal learning opportunity for me.  Developing the Fair – a “product” in itself – and helping the participants to pull prototypes and communications together for an audience, just jumping in to this effort and figuring it out as we went along, taught and prepared me more for product development and entrepreneurism than any other experience. 

I spent the rest of my K-C career in advanced product development or new business identification, usually as a team leader, and sometimes as what Gifford Pinchot called an “Intrapreneur” – a corporate entrepreneur, driving new products from discovery to basis-for-interest to commercialization.  It’s the nature of many companies to prematurely dismiss ideas that represent what the world might want/need 5, 10 years out and beyond in favor of near-term opportunities – the intrapreneur stays under the radar, using passion, brains, intuition, stealth, any and every other human and material resource available to keep things moving.  It helps to have had some managers that often looked the other way.

Many years ago, Rose Moss, a good friend and associate of mine (, gave me a wonderful expression for the nurturing of new product concepts: “Socialize the idea.”  This is the perfect mantra for the Intrapreneur. Like an infant, one initially shields and protects the idea, exposing it gradually and appropriately so the world begins to know it and it begins to know the world, and they begin to accept each other.  

b) During the years I was at K-C, the company went through a transformation from paper company to consumer products company (see Good to Great by Jim Collins).  These were great times for learning and redefining (for example, the role of consumer advocate and product developer had been relatively undefined.  I got to assist with this effort. There were product developers there older than I who just “got it” and did it, without acclaim.  These are my own role models and unsung heroes).  The frustration of this transformation came in trying to move beyond an objective, manufacturing mindset into a more subjective, applied consumer view. It was easy for some to make this leap, more difficult for others.  But this is where I began to carve a niche for myself.

c) More than any other category, my work in the Infant Care category had the most significant impact on the company.  Early on, I provided the product development and consumer leadership for the introduction of HUGGIES diaper improvements.  Later, with my teams, I conceived and championed the development of HUGGIES Baby Steps, Huggies Supreme, and Huggies Storytime® disposable diapers, Huggies Little Swimmers® disposable swim pants, and Good-Nites® sleep shorts.  I am the inventor-on-record for nearly 80 patents for these products (as well as other branded K-C products).

My job assignments as new product team leader were broad.  For example, “Identify a new-to-the-world product for the infant or child care categories.”  The vision, research strategy, and process largely were up to me and my co-workers. 

I always started with a practice of articulating a new, divergent frame of reference for looking at the problem.  Talking with and observing people, particularly behavior leaders (Scouts) and how they lived their lives, using those observations to develop hypotheses and push them as far out as possible – allowing a lot of hang time in the abstract until the right insights and models come together to be translated into product, including serendipitous bits and pieces, all these merging together to hone in on the idea.

I was fortunate in that I was able to establish some credibility early on, with successful product improvement work and the Innovation Fair, and acquired the sponsorship of some senior management, which brought me a lot of freedom not often allocated to someone in my position.

2) What were some of your favorite accomplishments?

a) The incredible network of diverse, brilliant, creative individuals that has been my privilege to meet and work with, inside and outside the company.  Not my accomplishment, but certainly my favorite.

b) Participation and leadership in the definition of the Role of Product Developer.

c) That, beyond new product introductions, we – the circles of insightful people with whom I worked – actually did change the culture within, changing the processes by which we uncovered new opportunities and developed them.  And we changed the language.  I am not sure how well the insights underscoring these changes are understood, but it is rewarding to see the influence.

d) Huggies Little Swimmers was my favorite “intrapreneurial” effort.  While it was off strategy for corporate new products because it addressed an existing category rather than new-to-the-world, I was able to find senior level sponsorship for the idea with the personal care sector.  I had passion for the concept, so I moved along with the project.  I had senior support and budget now, but a team of only two, including myself. So we launched what I call Stone Soup product development – make what you are doing stimulating, fun and worthwhile so people are excited to get involved.  Again, many people looked to make a creative contribution.  They needed to be shown appreciation and respect for the effort. 

We did have an item – a very cool foam pen that represented the project logo – that became a badge of honor that you were part of the work.  So interesting – people yearn for creative involvement. 

What was a team of two became an unofficial team of probably 50 or more, all of whom played a huge role in the success of what became a new business that met K-C’s challenging requirements in size and profitability. As for their managers – they made a point of ignoring that some of their deputies’ time was getting sucked away for Little Swimmers (senior level support and endorsement is critical for new product development – it keeps doors open).  And working with babies who were finally had a garment that would allow them entrance into public swimming pools – parents with babies back then will understand)… Just too much fun.

e) The Development of the Scout behavior philosophy, especially as applied to new personal care products.  This was the greatest opportunity I had to really use my Scout and behavioral innovation processes in very deep ways.  The result was a new product line that was never developed – too different than the normal corporate brands in concept and manufacturing – but that offered the broadest, highest tests scores seen in the personal care products industry until that time. 

3) Tell me something about what I am assuming was an engineering, male, Midwestern culture inside K-C while you were there.  What were your observations?

a) First of all, like many companies, K-C was large enough to have several sub-cultures.  Rather than “engineering” and “male” (I knew and depended on many innovative engineers and men!), I think a homogeneous, linear thinking culture focused primarily on the bottom line best describes the operating culture I knew.  Some might object, but I am speaking from a creative’s perspective.  Some observations I had about the culture at different points in my career?  

• That there was a low threshold for and buy-in to diverse and alternative thinking.          

• That “creative” means frivolous and feminine, even when its results are delivering millions a year in operating profits.   

• That hiring/promoting the familiar can produce a homogeneous environment and philosophy (and in this case, representative of Midwest culture you mention).  

• That personal creative excellence, intuition, chutzpa and passion often translate into “management problem”. 

• That the culture, while it tolerates the alternative and creative mindset, it doesn’t embrace the richness of opportunities it can offer.

These were generally the positions of some who might have felt threatened by processes they weren’t comfortable with.  BUT, I worked with scores of people who intuitively recognized good ideas and knocked themselves out to be involved and make them successful, whether they were officially on the team or not.  There is a human drive to be creative and people want to be involved.  You do need to remember to say “thank you.”

b) Part of the Fortune 500 culture was the commonplace objective that each new product needed to deliver at least $100 million in manufacturer’s sales.  Being able to manufacture it on existing assets was also an common, unspoken criteria (if the objective didn't start out this way, it became a key consideration once the opportunity was defined).  Smaller and niche opportunities were discouraged, even if they delivered a high level of operating profits.  New processes and machines were risky – what if the business failed?  Some new businesses did fail, and if clearly understanding the reasons is not always pursued to its fullest extent, the fear of new business risk remains intact. 

c) The Midwest culture – along with fewer women in the professional workplace in my early years – also impacted who led projects and how the marketplace was viewed.  Interestingly, when I started at KC, most of the product developers and decision makers in the Feminine Care department were men.  They developed a product that met the needs of many women, but called it the Kotex® Heavy Duty Tampon – why not just call it the Die-hard battery of tampons!  Try finding a woman to put that on the grocery conveyer!

4) What were some of the frustrations you experienced during your career at K-C?

a) I think I shared a huge frustration with others:  that there was a threshold of tolerance for creative insight and expertise beyond which one’s observations and ideas are dismissed as insignificant and even non-essential.  There is a huge universe of behaviors, practices, beliefs, insights, and attitudes – consumer culture – but only a small percentage of them get inside the corporate doors, usually not the most portentous ones but the most easily workable.  This actually became more common later in my career. I would feel exhilarated after doing innovative consumer or Scout research – anything was possible, until I re-entered the cement atrium of the corporate building, understood the challenges of selling new insights, and felt the air leak out before I passed the security desk.

b) Secrecy, in communications both outside and within the company.  It just shuts down intellectual and creative transfer of any kind, and sets up mistrust. 
c) The role and function of Product Developer:  this was an undefined role in my early years.  Product developers had been typically under-valued because managers “don’t know what they do so we don’t know how to evaluate them.”  It was a handful of product developers in the early 80’s, myself included, who took on the job of defining the role and determining the performance parameters, using as case studies how the successful entries of products like Huggies were actually products of insights into consumer behavior and intuitive design, in addition to the materials and engineering skill.  This effort morphed into a corporate product development training program that became a model for the other disciplines in the corporation.  Product Development suddenly was the cool job to have.  We developed our own identity as Product Developers and gained intellectual influence and personal and professional identity with it.  So this frustration was turned into a happy ending, a group accomplishment of which I am very proud. 

d) After successfully developing Little Swimmers by begging and borrowing and luring help, it set the expectation that I should do that for my next project.  Somehow I had gained the tag of “individual contributor”, most likely because I worked without an official team on Little Swimmers.  But if teams were being provided for other projects, why not to mine?  I once heard an interview with film director Robert Altman on NPR – that each time he produced and succeeded, the critical bar was set higher and the expectations for his next project were raised.  Although I don’t pretend to be in his creative league, his comments struck home.  But as usual, I managed to round up a project posse.

As a senior product developer, and in the role of “intrapreneur” on Little Swimmers, I wore all the hats, technical and consumer, including hand-making many of the prototypes, making test product in machiladoras in July, performing materials testing, as well as the concept and positioning development work, consumer evaluations, whatever it took, taking the product through quantitative and volumetric concept-and-use testing and Basis For Interest.  When it came time for evaluations, the senior technical people who were my peers (PhD “Fellows”) did not regard the work as technically sophisticated enough for recognition or promotion in those ranks.  Since I was working for a senior business manager on the project, I didn’t have a technical champion for support.  I was caught in the middle.

There was simply no career path for the very senior level, creative, prolifically successful entrepreneurial product developer with a broad consumer-culture view. Business and Technical management were inappropriate (too right brained for me and actually took one out of the product development role), nor was the Fellow path appropriate (more for the highly technical).  I didn’t fit either path (this was true for other senior level product developers).  If my unique – and successful – methodologies and insights had been met with a broader willingness to understand, that might have offered some sense of fulfillment.

e) The silos of R&D and of Marketing. 

5) Favorite inspirations

a) Buckminster Fuller, particularly in the book, The Best of Friends.  In describing his friendship with Japanese sculptor Isamu Noguchi, he used his same theories of geodesic dome construction, and set me off on the value and practice of triangular and 3D thinking in so much of my work.  Kleenex Ultra facial tissue was a direct result of this influence.

b) My “super” Scout network.  For their ability to let go of convention and be innovators and agents of real behavioral change.

c) People-watching in general, including eavesdropping.  Just trying to observe without mixing myself up in the situation. The best source of inspiration and ideas.

d) Dan Endres – one of my unsung heroes at KC, who retired several years before I left K-C.  He was a passionate pioneer and advocate for environmentally sustainable products and practices, and an outstanding product developer.  I had good supporters, but Dan was my only true mentor.

e) Great natural beauty – big water and big mountains – the most inspirational, developmental, and productive conversations I have had were during walks near water and mountains.

f) The New York Times.  I’ve read it every day for decades. Every day I find something to use or store away for later when I need a missing piece.

g)  Street wandering throughout the world. 

h) My Uncle Art – I was totally intrigued by his behavior and interests and somehow understood him as a “Scout” even when I was a kid – though I didn’t have a word for it then.  But he became the platform for the theory.  

i) Julia Child (and the diverse food universe in general) – her trilling voice commanding “Saaave the juices!” taught me that any little detail can eventually be the missing piece to the puzzle.  It’s all good.

j) My husband Frank and his passion for innovators in music, literature, sports – culture!

6) What were some of your strategies and tactics?

a) After a few project successes, they begin to think that you might be on to something!

b) Personal traits – I was well-liked, had a sense of humor, appreciated and recognized people’s help, had vision and passion which transferred to the teams I belonged to. 

c) I did stay under the radar.  My bosses always knew I was doing some kind of research, some of it “stealth” research.  I was selective about what I reported, but always reported relevant progress (“Socialize the idea!”).  By the time it was “safe” to lay out the vision/product, I was pretty far along and had a good amount of data.

d) The company never understood Scouts, just that I used them, who and whatever they were.  Going off to Seattle, Cambridge, etc., doing research, ideations and workshops with Scouts (both consumer Scouts and my “super” Scout network), etc., gave me the environment and companionship I needed to pull visions and opportunities together.  While it was often a challenge to communicate insights when I went back, I always returned with stronger vision, direction, and motivation.

e) I walked the walk.  The subjects I talked about, the books I read, the people I came to know, the experiences I sought in my personal life, all had the trappings of “future”.  So it made some sense that I might be the one to understand the future. 

f) I filled my office with products, pictures, packages, prototypes, everything that could relate to the project and from which I could draw inspiration and connections.  But that also encouraged people to stop in and talk, check out what I was doing, and share some ideas.  When I was working on personal care products, people would stop by the door just because it smelled so good – product buy-in via aromatherapy!  Stone Soup product development.

g) I had faith in my own unique abilities. I focused on what I saw was happening to people and their lives, and translated that into good products.  In the end, I left because I couldn’t bring in as much of the outside culture as I wanted.  I wanted to do more of it, trying to capture as much of the outside culture as I could, with as many categories as I could, push my own capabilities.

7) Final Thoughts

I am not sure that companies should recruit and keep individuals like a Paula Rosch.  Perhaps individuals like me belong on the outside of corporations.  I found my corporate career accomplishments and experiences immensely satisfying, but I do enjoy operating in my current, broader environment.  I may be even more effective, bringing a breadth of consumer culture insights to a diverse group of clients who somehow mix it all up and create something more unique than if they had followed an internally resourced program.  I hope so.


For more information about Paula or to get in touch with her, see her website "Paula Rosch, Ideas that Grow" here.

12 thoughts on “Paula Rosch, unsung hero in the production of innovation and culture

  1. Scott Ellington

    I can’t resist the temptation to change the terms of the metaphor; that Paula is and has always been a goddess among customers, the epitome of highly-motivated participation with corporate consumer culture, seeking constant improvement in its products, brands and culture — despite continuous resistance from an industrial/commercial mindset that can’t seem to recognize customers (customizers) through the divisive windowframe (mirrorframe) that’s labeled, “Consumers” — when nothing of any importance is actually consumed.

    In my mind, “Scouting” continues to connote various forms of suspect exclusivity, exploitation and duplicitous diplomacy with hostiles — which far more ably fits (per Paula’s description) treating with grudging, hostile, unsinging corporate culture than facilitating innovation.

  2. Grant McCracken

    Scott, thanks for your comment. Paula and I have been talking about it, and I thought it was noting her observation that her idea of scouts refers to “the chicken farmer in Petaluma, the retired teacher in Ann Arbor, the bus driver in Seattle – all Scouts who represent exclusivity only because they are intimately and intuitively connected with behaviors that reflect human core values.” I am not sure I find the metaphor off putting. Certainly, the reality for which it stands is a simple, uncomplicated and deeply valuable process of making organizations more connected to the world…at a time when this knowledge is ever more important and fleeting. Best, Grant

  3. srp

    Have you seen Deborah Dougherty’s papers on product development in mature firms? Some of the issues alluded to in this interview get analyzed and articulated more fully in:

    Interpretive Barriers to Successful Product Innovation In Large Firms, Organization Science, (1992) 3: 179-203.

    The Illegitimacy of Successful Product Innovation In Established Firms, Organization Science, with Trudy Heller, (1994) 5:200-218.

    One important sidelight to me is that K-C’s manufacturing prowess was absolutely critical to their ability to survive and compete in the disposable diaper market. The overwhelming technological imperative of keeping those block-long machines spewing out product at 500 units/minute (or whatever it’s gotten up to) really restricts the amount of niche product manufacturing you can do. Turning them on and off or redesigning them to produce different products is very, very costly. (The main reason Johnson & Johnson was unable to exploit its baby franchise in the disposable diaper industry was its lack of capability at high-speed paper manufacturing. They bailed out in 1981, I think, after about seven years of effort.)

  4. Paula

    I agree completely – K-C was and is a sophisticated high speed manufacturer – the best. However, other new product opportunities (large businesses as well as niche), suggested additional manufacturing processes which might have led to new, diverse categories.

  5. Grant McCracken

    I’m inclined to agree with Paula. There’s no reason why K-C couldn’t have
    set up auxiliary lines, smaller, faster, more nimble. And of course the
    Japanese have taught us that even the big lines can be retooled almost in
    real time.

    On Fri, Sep 11, 2009 at 8:37 AM, wrote:

  6. srp

    Paula’s comment is intriguing. If she can explain without breaching confidentiality, I would love to know what sort of “additional manufacturing processes” she has in mind.

    Grant: The classic diaper-forming machines historically were finicky beasts where it took months or years to get their manufacturing speeds up, with lots of fine-tuning and adjustment. If you think of how easily (and capriciously) a photocopier’s paper path jams and then picture something much bigger, faster, and more complex, you can see where once you had a line going well you would be loath to fool with it.

    Maybe good statistical process control, poka-yoking for different models, and the rest of the quick-change bag of tricks from Japan could reduce changeover times, but the fundamentally temperamental qualities of folded paper under tension makes me skeptical that a machine using the same basic technology could be significantly more nimble (at any size). But it’s an empirical question and I have no direct experience, so you could well be right.

  7. Paula Rosch

    srp – I was referring to products and businesses that would require a departure from the K-C processes and machines already running, rather than suggesting they alter those machines (i.e. you can’t make teapots on a diaper machine, not that teapots were in the works…), or that they should in some way impede those businesses. I appreciate the discussion, and welcome more on innovation, but would prefer to not dwell further on specific K-C processes, and honor the confidentiality they need.

  8. Paula Rosch

    Please forgive me – someone visited my website after seeing this blog and sent me an e-mail requesting a way to follow me, and the note got lost in the wilderness of southwestern Wisconsin. I thank you for your interest, and please contact me again. Otherwise: twitter is @paularosch, and I am also on facebook.

  9. srp

    Paula: Thanks for the clarification.

    It’s always tricky for a firm to extend its capabilities. One can point to numerous examples of firms moving out of their core areas of operational or marketing expertise and face-planting (e.g. Grumman into municipal buses), but also of a number of successes (e.g. J&J). The key issue in whether a firm succeeds in branching out and making a practice of it, I suspect, is whether it can “move its base foot from the bank of the stream to a new rock in the stream.”

    What I mean by this metaphor is that successful firms start with one thing they are unusually good at and comfortable with, usually either operational or marketing-based. That’s their “base on the bank.” Then they often come up with a new market for a given operational capability (or a new set of activities they can deliver to a given market), which is like their second foot leaving the bank and stepping on a rock in the stream. The firm still feels pretty comfortable at this point, and maybe proud that it’s found some new profit centers, but its scope is still fairly narrow.

    The hard part comes when you ask them to use the newly acquired capability with a second, even newer, one. They’re pretty happy where they are. The thought of resting all their weight on the new thing they’ve learned while they swing their back foot out over the stream is not comfortable. (At this point you can see that we had a creek in the woods behind the house where I grew up.) The new base feels insecure; the new target rock seems far away and slippery.

    If they freeze up in that position they will never navigate the stream; if they try to move out but slip they may not venture out there again. Putting together new and even newer capabilities for the first time seems like a fundamental hurdle for successful firms.

  10. Paula Rosch

    srp – your insights about how difficult it is for a company to make a leap (even, as you say, two leaps) from a comfortable and successful place are perceptive and sensitive.

    A few years after I left K-C, one of its executives asked me what I found the most different between K-C and other companies of similar stature I was now consulting with. My answer was “diversity” – they had more businesses, more categories, more products. But who can say whether that approach is right for every company? It just wasn’t right for me.

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