21: Innovation From Spotting Details and Asking Questions: Logitech CEO Bracken Darrell

Bracken Darrell launched products like deodorant and washing machines before leading one of tech's hidden turnaround stories.

Bracken Darrell launched products like deodorant and washing machines before leading one of tech's hidden turnaround stories.

Not many executives can say they've studied the finer points of everything from deodorant and washing machines, to Bluetooth speakers and gaming keyboards. 

Bracken Darrell can. Darrell is CEO of Logitech, a company that once specialized in mainstream PC mice and keyboards. One of the remarkable things about him is his appetite for learning. His curiosity has led him from a modest upbringing in Western Kentucky, to leading one of the smartphone era's most remarkable turnaround stories. 

I sat down with Darrell for the Fortt Knox podcast to find out how his upbringing shaped him, and how his curiosity helped him find his way to the C-suite. Logitech's stock has quadrupled since he took over four years ago; the company's now worth $5.5 billion. 

Start from the Bottom 

Darrell's parents split up when he was a preteen. He grew up in Owensboro, Ky., one of four siblings raised by a single mother. As a result, he never had to look far for motivation. 

"I had it easy. I didn't have a choice. I had to make it," Darrell says. "We literally would wear the same jeans all the time. Like a lot of people – I'm not a Horatio Alger story, I mean, we had plenty to eat. But we didn't have any money. It didn't make me particularly money-conscious, but I certainly did always envy the opportunities that I thought were available to people who had money that I didn't. It's really ironic, because now that I look back on it, it's the biggest advantage I ever had." 

It's a lesson that applies no matter what your circumstances are in the beginning. If you understand what it means to make do with less, it can help you stay focused and resist a sense of entitlement.  

See the Whole Room 

Darrell turns to literature and the arts to help him think about things in new ways. One book, Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, shifted the way he looks at solving problems. A conversation with leading brain researcher Henry Markram helped illustrate just how much information we miss every day. 

"He said when you walk into a room when you're a little, tiny child, you soak in the whole room. You see it all. When you walk into the room as an adult, you see this sliver in the corner, and you build the room in your brain. You actually don't even see it," Darrell says. "That made a big mark on me. Think how many mistakes we make in our roles because our brain's building based on pattern recognition, and we're not seeing or thinking anymore, objectively." 

The rub, here: From a primitive perspective, it makes perfect sense. If you're walking through the savanna, you don't need to notice every blade of grass, but you need to see the lion that wasn't there before. 

But business is different, Darrell says. We need to force ourselves to look at ordinary things in extraordinary ways if we want to win.  

Sniff Out Genius 

Problem-solvers also need to get smart about odd topics in short order. One of the best ways Darrell has found to do that? Find the smartest people in your organization and pick their brains. It might sound obvious, but people are often intimidated by the engineers and scientists who might hold the key to figuring out a business problem. They're not always invited to the meetings where decisions get made. 

Darrell saw the benefits to this up close while working for Procter & Gamble. He was working on the Old Spice deodorant product, trying to reinvent the brand and turn it around. He sat down with a chemist and told him he wanted a simple, visible way to show their product was better and lasted longer. 

"He said, 'We have propylene glycol in this.' And propylene glycol evaporates less fast, and that's one of the reasons why this product is better – not the only reason, but it's one of the reasons why it lasts longer," Darrell says. The result was a commercial for high endurance deodorant that showed a time lapse video of the competitor's product evaporating faster than a swipe of Old Spice. 

"Those were the most boring commercials in the world," Darrell says now, "and I'm responsible for them." (I'm not so sure about the boring part. More than 20 years later, this Gen Xer still remembers them.)