I should listen to Steven Johnson more. Perhaps there’s a reason all this talk of innovation makes me twitch a little. Johnson urges us to listen to the slow hunch and focus on unraveling that instead of chasing light-bulb moments. In other words, trust your gut—if you can’t get it out of your mind, you’re probably onto something.
Johnson was one of many great minds at The Economist’s Ideas Economy: Innovation Forum. This event didn’t actually celebrate achievements, it celebrated how to help people achieve (I knew I was onto something a few months ago). Ultimately, it’s less about creating a “department of innovation,” than it is about having the bravery and leadership to make the sometimes unpopular investments and trade-offs that allow people to see those innovations through.
Cultivating true innovation.
True innovation is cultivated in environments that genuinely energize people. Think about what that means. What we heard was that those environments include a common goal that matters, a philosophically unified team of shared values, access to people from diverse backgrounds, the security to fail and regroup, a physical space that doesn’t feel oppressive and so forth.
Humans are programmed to be risk-averse; it is a survival trait. Robert Tucker says this individual trait naturally adds up in an organizational structure. We need to go out of our way to create safe and stimulating environments for real potential to break through—both physically and psychologically.
Johnson asked why the coffee house in past centuries was so generative to ideas versus colleges. It was perhaps due to the caffeine (seriously!), but importantly, it was about multidisciplinary space where there was a tremendous flow of ideas.
The collisions between these different fields is important. Juxtapose coffee houses with the typical conference room, where many ideas essentially go to die. And death of an idea is OK, provided that it doesn’t also extinguish the pursuit of better or take a human sacrifice along with it…as is so common in today’s corporate environments. In fact, Google’s Laszlo Bock went as far as to say that smart people in organizations rarely experience failure, which leads to them shutting down their capacity to learn. What a terrible waste that is.
Innovation demands risk.
VM Ware’s Pat Gelsinger noted that—as opposed to an investment mentality—most organizational DNA is built around optimization, or squeezing more and more efficiency out of its assets, which inherently runs counter to all this. And Bock reminded us about the plethora of research substantiating the fact that as soon as you start bringing up extrinsic rewards, motivation declines. What businesses have largely created is a model that stifles innovation and nudges people to continue milking the cow by offering up cash, titles and awards as incentives. What is bound to happen?
At one point in the conference, a person working at a nonprofit asked how to take risks in a philanthropically funded culture that doesn’t tolerate failure. The answer was as remarkable as it was encouraging. If we just look at the crowd-funding phenomenon (approximately $15 billion in 2015 by some accounts), it reveals a world asking us to take bigger risks. Companies may not want you to take risks, but people will back you up as you take that shot.
As it turns out, we are only in the ideas business—and able to make a real impact on our clients’ business—if we can truly be in service of the people we employ. Maybe soon, we’ll only be in business if we are able to do just that.
There was a lot of stellar discussion about innovation and disruption at Berkeley’s recent Economist’s 2013 Innovation Forum. At the Intelligent Infrastructure panel, San Francisco’s Timothy Pandreou brought the notion of customer experience to the fore by noting, “The more mobile we get, the more social interaction we need.” Even with high-tech as the backdrop, Pandreou’s comment wasn’t really about innovation. It was about the basics of human behavior and getting the things we want from our lives.
In a world where knowledge workers can work remotely and there’s a low barrier to face-to-face meetings, people generally choose to live in cities because of what the panel called “non-job things”. aka “lifestyle benefits”. This notion prompted The Economist’s Vijay Vaitheeswaran to remind us of the English writer Samuel Johnson’s quote, “When a man is tired of London he is tired of life.”
The human needs of customers and prospects.
This “customer experience of cities” is mirrored by the customer experience for companies. The ability to buy from many places and research the hell out of everything has raised the loyalty bar. We’ve seen this in the declining consumer scores feeding Forrester’s Customer Experience Index, millennial expectations outlined in a recent Fast Company article and in the rise of crowd-funding.
Thinking about this parallel led me to consider the “non-job things” we seek from the products we use, including those things James McQuivey outlines in Digital Disruption—comfort, connection, variety and uniqueness. The challenge is how to move to discussing human needs instead of vague terms like “surprise and delight” and “rich customer experience”.
Choosing based on “non-job things”.
To reflect this new reality, we talk in terms of experience media, where brands act out their features and turn their focus to amplifying and extending owned channels first to fulfill audience needs. Essentially, how do companies deliver on “non-job” factors in ways that make sense for their brand? Start here:
• Remove barriers to delivering the “non-job things” that fulfill needs throughout the online/offline customer experience. Easier said than done. People don’t cut brands slack for letdowns but they do praise brands that go above and beyond to deliver. For example, the Nike+ system showed that Nike believes everyone is an athlete; it delivers on connection (compare scores) and variety needs (gamify simple activities).
• Focus on content and experiences that are so good people can’t help but act as media. This shifts the focus away from the campaign and message broadcasts that used to work so well before there were so many channels and each message was judged and validated by a vast network of other people. For example, Red Bull’s sponsorship of the Stratos jump exemplifies their extreme stance and fulfills a need for variety (how often do you see a parachute jump from the stratosphere?).
• Take actions proving that you stand for something beyond product and profit motives. Examples here include direct charitable connections like Tom’s “buy a pair, give a pair”. Recently, Google also created a person finder to help in crises and deployed it during the recent Boston Marathon explosions to deliver comfort and connection through information.
This innovation and disruption around “non-job things” isn’t discussed nearly as often as shiny object and ancillary business development, but it sure seems like that’s how the smartest cities (and companies) are staying relevant and avoiding unexpected disruption. It’s not an “or” decision, but when we think about how to advise clients on how to transform, it’s a great place to start.
If you drove by T3 Austin headquarters in the wee hours of Saturday morning, you might have noticed all the lights on. We didn’t forget to shut down for the week, but instead to open the doors to developers competing in the official SXSW HackATX all-night hackathon competition.
Competing teams were given access to 23 enterprise-level 7-Eleven APIs developed by T3. The goal: develop new and innovative ways to provide digital convenience.
After a kick-off party at T3 Austin headquarters, a group of experienced developers settled in for a night of coding and creativity to help 7-Eleven re-imagine convenience. We provided caffeine, snacks, T-shirts and development advice. On the line were bragging rights and cold, hard cash.
The night was fueled by a creative spirit, plus lots and lots of hard work from the 27 competing teams. After a sleepless night of coding, 10 teams were asked to present their ideas to a panel of judges. Sean Devlin and Team Doo emerged as the overall winner. His SMS-centric app focused on the convenience of reaching as many 7-Eleven customers as possible. With a simple text message to a dedicated phone number, mobile customers using his app can find the closest 7-Eleven, current promotions, available services (gas pumps, Redbox, etc.) and directions.
Winners were chosen by a panel of industry-leading judges based on a combination of functionality, design and presentation.
“We want to thank everyone who participated and competed at HackATX,” says Pamela Crosier, T3 director of Creative Development. “It was exciting to see such a collaborative spirit coursing through this place overnight. Great fun, great work.”