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chicago innovation leaders speak

Friday 5 November, 2010

I attended this panel discussion organized by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs INNOVATION AND TECHNOLOGY:  THE PATH TO MARKET LEADER

Farhah Yasin, COO-Intl @ Groupon, led off with 2 concepts:

  1. innovation is an iterative process on the internet, which means you need to act quickly on information that comes in
  2. you don’t have to build a new car to be innovative, i.e. traditional businesses are coming online in innovative ways

Patrick Whitney, dean of the Institute of Design @ Illinois Institute of Technology, noted that design is embedded in the process of innovation.  Apple extracted the joy of listening to music from basic .mp3 players.  Design brings user insight into the process & extracts problem-solving beyond just the scope of a product.  He used a low-technology example from India.  They introduced small refrigerators they thought would serve 80% of the market, but there was pushback from women because it contained no freezer.  The manufacturer camped out with the women to learn about their habits, & created new franchises so that they could share in a new & better solution.

Larry Keeley, of Doblin, Inc. & the Monitor Group, made 3 points

  1. innovation today is all about giving up your secrets, which now can be taught to anybody
  2. great cities should have a mission for innovation with discipline & without waiting for lightning to strike as much as companies are conscious of fostering innovation
  3. Chicago has a great innovative history which shouldn’t be taken for granted.  (“Maybe we should burn down the city every 100 years to start anew”).

panel Q&A

Keeley suggested government needs to create “points of view” for a transformation in innovation & a better ecosystem.  Yasin posited that government should get behind business with tax incentives.  Whitney questioned whether or not government should play any role in innovation-the relationships between educational institutions & business may be more important.

Yasin said that gathering the right data was more important than intuition in bringing products to market.  Whitney thought many companies are too data-driven, but they don’t solve the problem of unresolveable complexity.  Keeley noted that leaders recognize moments when to take action, often as a result of a nagging accumulation of evidence.  He took it even further by saying even if we execute our strategic plan perfectly, we still need to invent at least 8% new to “improve the known” (vs. the unknown).

Keeley exclaimed that government prizes create leverage of 17:1 in encouraging innovation, which Whitney endorsed.  Yasin mentioned that Google encourages its employees to devote 25% of their time to non-work.

In the next 5 years

  • Keeley sees a revolution in health care, bringing predictive & preventative care to the forefront, transformations in transportation with mobility tools, & much improved learning materials
  • Whitney predicts a decline in the faith in the web & transition to “trusted purpose networks” which will replace social networks
  • Yasin observed that a key strategy will be to go global as fast as possible because barriers to entry are now so low & gave China coming online as an example.

open Q&A

problem-solving questions to ask are:

  • Whitney-build a prototype to start learning & knowing with a focus on conjectures rather than hypothesis
  • Keeley-what are the errors of omission?
  • Yasin-what does the customer want?

Keeley said innovation has gone global, which has impacted the economics of innovation, remarking that China has 8X as many researchers as anyplace else.  We also need not just new ideas, but velocity as well.

Keeley stated that rather than create a culture of innovation, seek competence instead.  If you innovate, the culture will take care of itself.

On corporate social responsibility:

  • Keeley said if something is proven, the Gates Foundation will fund it, as $.02 worth of folic acid in the developing world has save millions of lives
  • Whitney questioned its applicability, but suggested putting designers on M&A teams
  • Yasin advocated that innovation takes place in a top-> down fashion, so management needs to incentivize employees to create a long-term advantage.  Established companies suffer from a different problem, focusing only on profit or R&D

Missteps could be:

  • Keeley-results are not new products, rather new platforms that are self organized & user centric which are achieved by redefining boundaries & the unit of analysis
  • Whitney established 3 conditions
  1. understanding of user needs
  2. motivation (usually either fear or pain)
  3. willingness to go down an unknown path
  • Yasin-mistakes are good, & the more, the better, but remain focused on 80% of the market

The global norm is a 4 1/2% success rate.  Keeley observed that success rates can approach 35-50% & max out @ 82%.

On legal protection of innovation:

  • Keeley-worry less about protection & foster accelerated adoption instead.  Move faster & smarter.
  • Whitney-focus on systems, for example Apple dominates with features at every step
  • Yasin-we need to protect IP @ whatever necessary costs.
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