FOR WHAT IT'S WORTH with Blake Melnick

Entuitive Ennovation - Part 1 with guest Stephen Cohos

January 26, 2023 Blake Melnick Season 4 Episode 8
FOR WHAT IT'S WORTH with Blake Melnick
Entuitive Ennovation - Part 1 with guest Stephen Cohos
FOR WHAT IT'S WORTH with Blake Melnick
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Show Notes Transcript

This week on #ForWhatItsWorthwithBlakeMelnick, the next instalment in our series, #TheManyFacesofInnovation, we focus on innovation at the organizational level.

For those of you new to the series, here's a bit of a recap. #TheManyFacesofInnovation Series is designed to make innovation more understandable, accessible, and actionable to both individuals and organizations alike.

In our first two episodes of the series this season, we profiled the ground-breaking research of Dr. Terry Soleas from Queens University around what motivates people to want to innovate, and conversely, why do some people struggle with it? And if we can understand this dynamic, then it's possible to design conditions that allow innovation capability to take hold, both for individuals and within organizations

We're doing this through the telling of stories of innovators across multiple fields of endeavour and their innovation journey's and the lessons they've learned along the way

In this two-part episode, we're going to hear the story of a young engineer who joined a firm in Calgary, Alberta five years ago, and has quickly  become a catalyst for innovation at his firm ...For What it's Worth

Link to Episode Blog Post

The music for this episode, "High Water"  is written and performed by our current artist in residence, #DouglasCameron. You can find out more about Douglas by visiting our show blog and by listening to our episode, #TheOldGuitar

Knowledge Management Institute of Canada
From those who know to those who need to know

Workplace Innovation Network for Canada
Every Graduate is Innovation-Enabled; Every Employee can Contribute to Innovation

Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase, I may receive a commission at no extra cost to you.

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Ennovation with Entuitive Part 1

[00:00:00] Blake Melnick: Well, welcome to this week's episode of For What It's Worth, and our new series, the Many Faces of Innovation. I'm your host, Blake Melnick, and for those of you new to the series, here's a bit of a recap. The many Faces of Innovation Series was designed to make innovation more understandable, accessible, and actionable to both individuals and organizations alike.

[00:00:53] This series is really about trying to get across the idea that innovation is not the same as invention. Although [00:01:00] invention may require innovation, it is not the preserve of geniuses or billionaires. It does not require support from venture capitalists or well-funded universities. It's accessible to us all.

[00:01:13] In our first two episodes of the series this season, we profiled the groundbreaking research of Dr. Terry Soleas from Queens University around what motivates people to want to innovate, and conversely, why do some people struggle with it? And if we can understand this dynamic, then it's possible to design conditions that allow innovation capability to take hold, both for individuals and within organizations.

[00:01:40] And we've opted to do this through the telling of personal stories from innovators across multiple fields of endeavor to hear about their innovation journeys and the lessons they've learned along the way. 

[00:01:50] In this particular two-part episode, we're going to hear the story of a young engineer who joined a firm in Calgary, Alberta five years ago, and has quickly [00:02:00] become an innovation catalyst.

[00:02:02] Our guest this week is Stephen Cohos from Entuitive, an engineering design firm based in Calgary, Alberta. As part of the Ennovation team, Stephen focuses on creating opportunities for employees to deliver self-initiated and self-driven idea sprints, to test ideas around increasing efficiency, finding new revenue opportunities, and advancing the company's innovation culture.. for what it's worth. 

[00:02:28] Stephen welcome to the show. Before we get into your innovation journey with Entutive, I'd like to give our listeners a little bit of background about you and then so they get to know you a little bit.

[00:02:38] And I want to talk about it in the context of the whole concept of innovation. So in your mind, what is innovation? 

[00:02:46] Steve: I was thinking about this today and when I began thinking about what innovation is, let's say, four or five years ago before I dove head first into this whole, innovation committee at Entuitive

[00:02:59] and [00:03:00] really focusing on that as part of my career. I always looked at it as, 1% better. It was this belief that, if you can increase, the efficiency of something or you know how well something is working, by a small margin of percent, then you're innovating, right?

[00:03:18] And you're changing the way that things had been done in the past to make it that much better for the future. Mm-hmm. . Actually listening to one of the earlier episodes of your podcast, there was this great quote that someone had said about the difference between invention and Innovation

[00:03:35] Innovation is taking something that already exists, changing it for the better and applying it to the things that you do. Right. And now when I. Talk to people at Entuitive about innovation, I often start with that.

[00:03:49] Blake Melnick: Well, I think you make a great point there. A lot of people seem to equate innovation with invention and then somehow think it's beyond their reach because they feel they need lots of money or a [00:04:00] VC to fund it, A lab scientist, developers, software engineers, and so on and so forth. But that's not really what innovation is.

[00:04:07] That's invention. And certainly there's innovation associated with invention, but they're really two separate things in many respects. And when I look at over the corporate world and all the clients I've worked with over the years, everybody has innovation in their corporate value statements, but they don't go to any length to define what that means in terms of behavior.

[00:04:27] And I think that's part of what we're trying to do in this podcast in our discussions with you, uh, in the innovation grant that we're currently working on, is to make innovation. More understandable, accessible, and actionable. Because when you use the word innovation, it has all kinds of different meanings depending on who you talk to.

[00:04:48] Steve: Totally. So you mentioned something really interesting there, every organization says, oh, well we have to have innovation, 

[00:04:54] and we have to have a group of innovation. And it's some sort of research department in the firm. And they work in their [00:05:00] little lab and they take ideas and they do things, and that's something that. Really avoid at Entuitive because what we try to do is instill the idea that every single person's an innovator, right?

[00:05:13] Like there's not a small group of people that are capable of innovation. everyone is capable of innovation. And that's where I kind of focus on that 1%. Improvement. , everyone has the ability to find a pain point in what they do and change it 

[00:05:27] Blake Melnick: I do think it's important that we have this definition of innovation that is more inclusive that says, everybody has the potential to innovate, depending on the context 

[00:05:36] but would you consider yourself an innovator? 

[00:05:39] Through and through. 

[00:05:40] Okay. Why?

[00:05:41] It's something I find exciting in the workplace, not only in the workplace and life itself. In the day to day. It's one of those things, when you look. Your career, your life.

[00:05:55] And you say why do I, wake up happy in the morning? Or what do I get excited about? [00:06:00] When I think about what's ahead of me in the day, and for me it is the innovation side of things. It's the taking something that exists and changing it and testing things and coming out with, a different outcome than maybe you thought you were gonna get.

[00:06:13] It's, The opposite of the fear of the unknown, like the unknown excites me. 

[00:06:17] And would you say that, innovation is something that's innate or is it something that can be learned? 

[00:06:24] Steve: Oh, for sure. Can be learned by anyone. Just like any skill. , innovation can be taught and certainly there are people that are, more akin to just naturally having, talent or, the way that you think about things in a different way. But there's no reason that anyone. Who learned how to type on a computer, can't learn how to innovate.

[00:06:46] Blake Melnick: I've been thinking about this a lot lately too, and I do consider myself an innovator, and I think the reason I'm an innovator is, Because I'm dissatisfied. , I am dissatisfied with the status quo.[00:07:00] 

[00:07:00] Steve: what I was just thinking about was, if you have the ability to be frustrated, you have the ability to be an innovator.

[00:07:06] Blake Melnick: I agreed. Yeah. , I think that's part of it. I , I look out at the world, I look at something and I say, this is dumb . Why are we doing it this way? It would be much better if we did it this way. So I think part of what drives me is this innate dissatisfaction, with the status quo.

[00:07:21] Whenever I look at something, I think, okay, this is pretty good. , but it'd be better if we did this or if you added this to it or incorporated that. And when I hear other people come up with really cool ideas, I go, Hmm, that's a really cool idea. I could take that idea and apply it to what I'm doing.

[00:07:36] So this whole notion of adaptive innovation or transference of ideas from one context to another, to, push a different kind of outcome, that excites me. And so when we talk about motivations, innovate, which we're going to do, , in a few moments, trying to identify well what are the intrinsic and extrinsic motivations for people.

[00:07:54] I do believe that people that are dissatisfied are more naturally inclined to be [00:08:00] innovators. Because they want to see a change. And I think that happens across, business, politics, the social sector, same thing. When people want to see change, they're not satisfied with the way things currently are.

[00:08:10] It's an interesting thing to explore in a evades me a bit as to how we can actually encourage that level of dissatisfaction or whether we should, of course. But I know for a lot of people, they look out and they say, I don't like this. I want to change it. It's almost as if the desire for change is a motivation for innovation. Now you've been working in the innovation space for some time you consider yourself a natural innovator you've been on this innovation journey for five years and you play a key role in driving the innovation mandate at Entuitive why do you think, Entuitive supports your efforts? What's in it for them? 

[00:08:46] Steve: Well, for Entuitive, right from creation of the firm, which was about 10 years ago, sorry, this is our 11th year. Innovation was one of the key pillars that they, built Entuitive on.

[00:08:59] [00:09:00] So it was a group of engineers that left a previous firm to start Entuitive. And, they developed, the typical value statements what they wanted intuitive to be in, the engineering space and innovation was right there. . In their, core value system.

[00:09:18] It's been something that Entuitive has always believed is a differentiator for them and is a differentiator, in the, engineering space. And so, It was very easy for me to step into the role and become part of it. And back to your original question, why did they support it?

[00:09:37] I think that they, have always believed that innovation is the difference maker. Like you can go to, a hundred engineering firms, and, we all basically do the same thing. But what we ultimately want to accomplish is creating value for our clients. Mm-hmm. [00:10:00] And so the way to create value or to build, great solutions for people is to innovate.

[00:10:09] Blake Melnick: Maybe you could give our listeners a little, overview of Entuitive tell us a little bit about the company what you do, what areas of specialization are and so forth. 

[00:10:17] Steve: Yeah, for sure. So Intuitive is a consulting engineering firm, 11 years ago at the birth of the firm, they really focused on, two engineering services, structural engineering and building envelope.

[00:10:30] And. Over the last 11 years, they've grown the firm to about 270 people. There's six offices, five across Canada and one in the United States. And we offer now around 140 various, consulting services, the, AEC industry. 

[00:10:48] Blake Melnick: Okay, great. So again, back to the focus on innovation.

[00:10:53] What are Entuitive's strategic goals and objectives behind their support for innovation and the work of the innovation team at [00:11:00] the company? 

[00:11:00] Steve: I think it's important to share, the three pillars that Entuitive, started with. When we look at the projects that we work on, the clients that we work for, we want to be creative, collaborative, and advanced and all of those things.

[00:11:14] When you think. Them in the innovation space, if you're innovating, you're gonna be creative. Looking at problems and coming up with unique solutions. You have to collaborate because, nothing happens in a silo. It's always teamwork, whether that's internal or with your clients or, whoever you're working with on a project.

[00:11:34] And you always want to be focusing. Advancements. So what's the next big thing? Right. Um, and a lot of that, ethos really sits well in the innovation space. So specifically on the strategy for Entuitive long term is that we want to instill the idea. That everyone at Entuitive is an innovator and has the capability to innovate.

[00:11:58] And no matter what [00:12:00] project or problem you're working on, you have, both the motivation and the mindset to say. , this is how we used to do it, and maybe as you said, create some frustration. So how can we do it differently, right? And approach any problem or whatever it is that we're working on in a different way and provide the greatest value that.

[00:12:25] we can for our clients. Right. 

[00:12:27] Blake Melnick: That's a really big mandate, obviously. But in order to support those objectives, those strategic objectives within Entuitive. Have you created a common definition of innovation that employees can. Number one, understand, and number two, make actionable in their day-to-day work. 

[00:12:43] Steve: We actually spent a little bit of time, last year, really drilling down, what does it mean to innovate at Entuitive? And we came up with a hundred word statement. I can read it out for you, but to me, the, those statements are important as sort of a north star, right?

[00:12:59] But a [00:13:00] lot of the times it's really harder, ambiguous, and, hard for people to grapple on what that is. So, beyond that definition of innovation, we, we've come up with a few different concepts. Allow people to understand, the buckets of innovation. And I think that's been really helpful for a lot of people to say like, okay, so if I'm, in this.

[00:13:24] Job and I'm supposed to be able to innovate, what are the ways that I can innovate, right? And so we focus on, three levers of innovation. When you look at an innovation at Entuitive, our buckets are revenue generation, are you coming up with a new service or a new way of delivering a service or something to do with changing how.

[00:13:45] Find revenue for ourselves. The second one, which is I think probably the most inherent or obvious to engineers is how do I become more efficient at the way that I do things? So a lot of the things that we see are people coming up with new [00:14:00] tools or new programs, writing Python scripts.

[00:14:02] Mm-hmm. away for them to, calculate. A thousand calculations in, a lot less time because, ultimately we spend hours and hours calculating things. Right. Right. So it's all about, efficiency improvements. And then the third one that was really important for us , to share with everyone, which, kind of sits outside of, what you would typically think of, as innovation in an engineering firm is cultural and social value.

[00:14:30] So there's a lot of ways that. . Think about the workplace, the collaboration that you have with people, and the way the firm interacts with itself and with its clients. And so there is a, a bucket of innovation that says, Hey, you know, it's not necessarily about engineering.

[00:14:48] It's more about people, and there's lots of space to innovate in our interactions on a day-to-day basis. . And that one I think is super important in terms of building a strong workforce, 

[00:14:59] Blake Melnick: And that [00:15:00] dovetails into something we're gonna talk about in a few minutes about quality of work and what that means, both for the perspective of employees and employers.

[00:15:06] But I think you're right. , and that cultural piece is. The most difficult, anybody that's in been involved in change management, knowledge management, innovation is the same, knows that it takes a long time to inculcate those types of changes, those cultural changes, across an organization easier in a younger organization.

[00:15:25] Like Entuitive than it is and one that's been around for 50 years and changing the culture becomes quite onerous. But it's still a difficult process because we go through training. You mentioned earlier, all engineers go through the same type of training as do lawyers and doctors.

[00:15:39] You get out in the world and you have an expectation that this is the work and this is how we work, and this is the culture of an engineering firm. And what you're saying is you're expanding those boundaries and saying it doesn't necessarily have to be the way you thought it was going to be, or the way you were taught that it was going to be doing the job as an engineer.

[00:15:57] And that's hard for people to make that [00:16:00] adjustment and step outside of the training that they had to become an engineer, for example. Totally. Yeah. Yeah. And so, you've been doing this for five years and you and I have been talking during this period of time. What would you say over the last four to five years were, your biggest success stories related to what you've talked about in terms of changing that culture, becoming more innovative to driving the innovation mandate at Entuitive

[00:16:24] I know you work with the team, but what achievements are you and your team most proud of looking back over the last four to five years? 

[00:16:31] Steve: I think. There's two buckets of them. So there's the development of the strategy and the systems that we've created to allow people to engage in innovation.

[00:16:40] And then there's obviously the outcomes of, people, trying out new ideas, testing them and finding success in them. So in terms of the strategy, we've worked really hard on, building, an edible strategy for people . So we talked about the three levers of innovation.

[00:16:56] We also have, an open space We call it the Idea Hopper it [00:17:00] uses a software called Output. it's like a website. an open space where people can put in ideas we try to support people in, testing those ideas and we found lots of success, in that. 

[00:17:11] Blake Melnick: I want to stop you there. I want to understand how this process works. So this is a very much akin to the suggestion box that has been used in the past so people are putting ideas in, how are you vetting those ideas? And how are you determining which ones are worth pursuing, which ones aren't, without creating negativity for the employees that have taken the time to put the idea, if their idea does not get selected, how do you manage all of that?

[00:17:34] Steve: So that one actually is one of my favorite success stories because like you said, as a suggestion box people say, well, I'm frustrated with this, and they put it in there and nothing happens. Nothing happens, right? Mm-hmm. , and we struggled with that.

[00:17:49] Early on when we introduced this, cuz there's a flood of ideas. , I'm just looking at the stats right now. Our total contributions right now is 360. 360 things that people have [00:18:00] come up with and obviously we haven't actioned them all. We do our best.

[00:18:03] But so through some feedback that we got , from all the employees, we came up with, this strategy, and we, share it with them in terms of t-shirt sizes, so every idea fits into a t-shirt, and so the t-shirts are extra small, small, medium, and large. What we do is when you're putting in an idea, we say, well, how much time or how much effort do you believe goes into this idea?

[00:18:30] And the way we've found success in, people not getting frustrated that their ideas aren't being done, is that we say, if you can fit your idea into an extra small, which we account for as eight hours of time, right? Go. , you automatically have permission and, budget to go create a prototype or research something.

[00:18:51] Because we believe the best way, to get people motivated about it. , but also to really quickly find out whether there's [00:19:00] something there or not. Right, right. Right. , if you can whittle down your value proposition to something that you can learn more within a day of time, it's yours, go ahead and go do it.

[00:19:12] Right? Obviously, not every ideas, can be done that way. Some people say, I believe in this huge change and it's gonna take six months of time, .And that's a little bit harder to find funding. One, it's hard to find funding because we don't really know if it's gonna work, right? And so what we do is we coach people to say, okay, this is a really big idea., what's one thing that you can test, right? To get you to the next stage gate of let's go further with this idea.

[00:19:37] Right? And so a lot of that is, educating people in. , thinking about their problems in an elevator pitch way, what's, , a small thing that we can do to find out if there's actually something behind this. And that's worked really well for us.

[00:19:52] We've gotten a ton of, ideas, easily actionable, and some of them worked and some of them didn't. Right. Another podcast that I was listening [00:20:00] to, made a really good statement. Let's say you have a budget of, $200,000 for innovation, would you rather go and spend it on two massive projects, 

[00:20:12] of a hundred thousand dollars each, or would you rather spend it on 200 ideas at a thousand dollars each? You're guaranteed to find success way more often. Simply based on numbers. Numbers, yeah. 

[00:20:25] Blake Melnick: Right. Mm-hmm. . Mm-hmm. . And so do you give employees some criteria before they put their ideas into the idea hopper?

[00:20:31] Is there a format, a form they have to follow? In other words, and can you tell us a little bit? . 

[00:20:36] Steve: Yeah, there's a form. and there's, let me just pull it up here. Cuz we ask about four questions. So there's a button you submit your idea. In the first box we say, provide an overview of your idea, whatever the background is, right?

[00:20:50] How did you get here? What pain points did you run into to make you think , Hey, we gotta change something. And then in that same question, we always go back to these levers. [00:21:00] So which lever do you think that this is part of? Revenue. Right? Efficiency. Gotcha. Or social culture.

[00:21:05] And then the second question is, What T-shirt size do you categorize this as? And so we give them the, extra small, small, medium, and large. And so that way we're getting them to think about how much effort actually goes into this idea. Right? Right. . And then there's a free form at the end.

[00:21:21] Is there anything else that's like really important that, you haven't been able to share? Is there a document that you've seen or is there a video that you saw? Is there a TED talk that all of a sudden the flash bulb went off. So share with us as much background as you have 

[00:21:33] and then let's look at what we can do to push it forward. 

[00:21:37] Blake Melnick: Right. And do other employees get to see one another's ideas as they go into the Hopper? 

[00:21:42] Steve: Yeah, totally. It's all open for everyone to see. And what's great is you're able to comment on it, you're able to give it a thumbs up or ask questions, right?

[00:21:49] We want to engage people in dialogue. There's been lots of instances where. People will say, well that's a really interesting idea. Have you thought about this? And that's the golden nugget. That's what you [00:22:00] want to see is like people from different offices in different areas of work engaging on something really interesting.

[00:22:07] Right. Yeah. And that's how you're gonna drill down and find out. What is the thing that we want to test and how much value does this have? 

[00:22:13] Blake Melnick: Sure. 

[00:22:14] If it attracts a lot of interest and input by other people, it means that the idea has some resonance. Typically when researchers study threaded discourse systems and knowledge building systems, they look at the length of the thread. The length of the discourse to say, here's 10 people that have. Ideas in, but these two have attracted all the attention, all the comments, all the build ons, all the extensions. So these two seem to be the strongest ideas, at least within the context of the community itself, where people are saying, we're gravitating towards these two ideas because they're really good.

[00:22:48] And so it gives you a chance to see where that support might reside within your organization for those ideas and other people that have been thinking the same way I could take what I'm doing and. Add it to what you want to do and we could extend it even [00:23:00] further.

[00:23:00] So I think that's a great approach. I really. . 

[00:23:03] Steve: It's obviously searchable, so you can see everything that people have put in. And you can also see the ideas that are active. So if someone's currently working on a project, you have full access to everything that they're doing, 

[00:23:14] Blake Melnick: right?

[00:23:15] Excellent. So people can join in and help advance the idea of others. Totally. Yeah. That's really important because, the research around this is that typically in organizations you get a lot of individual contributors, people put ideas in, but the higher level is actually not just, putting your own ideas in, but working with the ideas of other people and bringing your perspective and experience to those ideas to advance them.

[00:23:36] And that shows a higher level of collaboration, purpose-driven collaboration. During this whole process, what have you learned about innovation? You did touch on it briefly at the beginning, but what have you learned personally, , engaging all your employees in this process with the idea Hopper?

[00:23:51] And we're gonna go onto the impact challenge, cuz I know that's another area that you're using within the company. But what have you learned during this process?[00:24:00] 

[00:24:00] Steve: I've learned that innovation is hard,

[00:24:07] Drilling down an idea and finding the value, the true value, and really understanding how to make a, minimum viable product it's a skillset set in itself. Yes. Yes. And the fact is, engineers come out of engineering school they focus on engineering.

[00:24:26] They don't really focus on, design thinking or innovative thinking. But these people are obviously very smart and very capable. But they don't always have the, maybe it's the self-awareness or the self-confidence. Mm-hmm. to. Either open themselves up and say , I'm curious about this, but I don't know much about it.

[00:24:49] But I'd like to try. Right. Or, , they don't believe that they are even knowledgeable enough , in a specific area to then be able to apply. [00:25:00] innovative thinking to it. Right? And that's something that, we got a lot of feedback, from our employees cuz we do lots of outreach and try to, hear what people are struggling with and how can we, make the system easier or help them get more, freedom to innovate or to be creative.

[00:25:18] We put out this innovation challenge and say, Hey everyone, what do you think about this problem? And people say, well, I actually don't know enough about it, so therefore I'm not a, we call them SME's as subject matter.

[00:25:28] Subject matter experts. Yeah. Yeah. So therefore I can't contribute to this. And, it's become a big part of our. Ennovation team to coach people and say you're all capable of this, right? And actually, If you're not a subject matter expert, I think you have a better chance of coming up with a creative idea than someone who's too ingrained in the 

[00:25:49] idea.

[00:25:50] Blake Melnick: I really liked that when you only have perspective from like-minded people, people that have similar backgrounds and experience. And have worked together in the same organization for [00:26:00] many years. It becomes an echo chamber, the same ideas or solutions to problems become generated over and over again. 

[00:26:07] And sometimes you need to have somebody view the problem with a fresh perspective. who can say something like I may not have your experience or expertise. But have you ever thought about this? So to your point, getting a fresh perspective from new hires, encouraging them to engage in innovation is really important to helping increase the capacity and capability for innovation within Entuitive, and to build on this from my own knowledge management practice, a key component in helping organizations develop their comprehensive knowledge strategy is having them recognize and create space for transferring applicable knowledge from outside their organization, bringing it in house and adapting it to their own context. 

[00:26:48] That's part of the innovation process, taking an idea that might've been developed for one purpose. Recontextualizing it for use in another. 

[00:26:56] That's adaptive innovation. It's a hard thing to do though, right? Because [00:27:00] you've got a, a culture, like any culture where you have extroverts, you have introverts. How do you create a forum that satisfies both types of personalities. There's other people that need more time. It's not that they're not innovators, but they're not going to open their mouth right away.

[00:27:14] They're going to step back, they're gonna do some reading, some research, and then come back. So, if it's a speed dating process, you're probably not gonna get those people, engaged , and contributing. , this is the cultural piece and very difficult to manage. 

[00:27:26] You've talked about , the idea hopper and your success story of exploring how do we begin to create a conversation around innovation and make it accessible to our employees and a way to define innovative behavior in a way that employees can make it actionable.

[00:27:40] In your t-shirt analogy and things like that, is there anything else you're particularly proud about in the last four years that you've worked on? 

[00:27:46] Something that's changed as a result of your work and the work of your team and the support from Entuitive that's changed , how work gets done at the company or new products, new services.

[00:27:55] Is there something that stands out as a result of all this effort around innovation and [00:28:00] creating a culture of, innovation?

[00:28:01] This concludes part one of Entuitive Ennovation. Join us next week for part two where Steven and I discuss how innovation has impacted the quality of work for employees at the firm, as well as some of intuitive's other success stories, including the one I was particularly impressed with, the creation of Entuitive U, a new approach to how the firm recruits talent for what it's worth.