The political, social, and economic problems of tomorrow aren’t going to be solved using the methods honed by Baby Boomers and their parents (no offense to either generation). That message took center stage at this year’s World Innovation Forum, which took place on June 12th and 13th. But no matter how old you are, progress and prosperity are dependent on innovation. Here are five takeaways I took from more than a dozen speakers during the two-day idea-fest. The takeaways are for those of all ages:
Rebecca Henderson, co-director of the Business and Environment Initiative at Harvard, gave a sobering perspective on a future without change. A number of ills you’ve likely heard before — animal extinction, disrupted global weather patterns, water pollution and food shortages — are all looming. As we seemingly creep closer to global catastrophe, Henderson encouragingly suggests that we cannot only make the changes needed to preserve our environment and planet, but can probably make a profit doing it. With modest shifts in focus, organizations can improve the bottom line by reducing waste and emissions, and even generate revenue by solving large-scale problems.
Putting theory to practice, the young entrepreneurs at Sword & Plough, were featured for their sustainable and innovative products. Sword & Plough is marketing itself as a quadruple bottom-line company that repurposes used military fabrics in the creation of fashionable handbags and accessories crafted by veterans.
The idea that innovation is best achieved through the rigor of deliberate practice was an empowering takeaway echoed throughout the event. Innovation experts Luke Williams and John Kao often repeated this finding: innovative thinking, innovative climates, and innovative achievements are born from an explicit focus and continual effort. Specific practices include, setting aside time to think about how to be innovative in the varying contexts of your business (product, process, service, etc.), inviting different ideas and perspectives through conversation and shared spaces, accepting failure as a part of the process, and continually experimenting.
Kao described improvisation and innovation as the tension between structure and chaos; and, Williams provided valuable insight into how to embrace such tension through orderly exercises such as identifying product clichés and defining their opposites. For example, while the cliché of socks is to sell matched pairs, LittleMissMatched is building a company around the idea of selling unmatched socks in threes.
Will Pearson, co-founder of the magazine and media platform, Mental_Floss, provided key insight into the lessons he’s learned capturing the loyalty and raw power of the massively large and increasingly influential Millennial generation. Sighting Mental_Floss’s unique and exceptionally successful approach (e.g., named to Time’s 50 Best Web sites of 2013) to reaching out and engaging supporters, Pearson noted that while millennials may jump from task to task, device to device, and idea to idea, they can be swept into a frenzy through a variety of media, self expression, and idea sharing. To prove the point, Pearson told the story of the company’s evolving t-shirt business, which consists of paying contributors a modest fee for a good design and then selling the shirts online– a seemingly win-win collaborative strategy.
With a humble and accessible delivery, Michael Martin told the inspiring story of Vibram FiveFingers. You may have laughed at the footwear constructed to accommodate each individual toe. In the early days, FiveFingers shoes were brutalized by consumers and industry insiders as ugly and absurd. With little marketing budget and practical concerns that have included the mass production of a shoe that’s largely made by hand, Martin and his team at Vibram found a way to push through. In spite of the obstacles, FiveFingers have become a symbol for the barefoot running movement, an increasingly hot trend, and was even named one of Time Magazine’s best inventions of 2007.
The improv troupe On Your Feet creatively reminded the audience that the process of innovation can be as fun as it is rewarding. Continuously popping up throughout the conference, On Your Feet led the audience through stream of conscious brainstorming and improv exercises that ranged from using a short list of favorite things to create an innovative product or how the unnoticed objects around us can be used to memorably name a rock band. Slightly irreverent, the troupe used improvisational acting to explore how freeing your mind and letting go of your impulses can lead to creative and compelling solutions.
Dan Leidl is the co-author of the book, Team Turnarounds, regularly writes on topics that range from leadership and team development to innovation and motivation, and is a Managing Partner with Meno Consulting.