I‘ve attended many conferences over the years and each year seek out one that will expand my thinking – deliver an experience I cannot get simply by reading material online. Last week I attended the World Innovation Forum in New York City. Drawing over 900 attendees from 33 countries the focus centered on how to create, drive and manage disruptive innovation and design thinking. Over two days leaders at the forefront of innovation provided a suite of insights for us to take back and implement in our respective companies.

My young daughter asked me “why do you need to go to New York to learn?” There’s something to be said for physically traveling to an event, investing the time to focus by setting aside day to day tasks. Despite the technology available to us, online webinars don’t provide nearly the same immersive experience. It’s too easy to multi-task, missing the crux of the presenters’ message. It’s a mindset you’re in when you give your undivided attention to the speaker on stage. And yes, if you make the effort to go, that’s exactly what you should do.

There’s also the risk that a conference may not deliver on its promise. And the risk for the attendee is that you go, are entertained and inspired but then go back to the office with business as usual. One presenter called it the Monday morning problem. What a waste. It’s incumbent on each of us to consciously act on our new knowledge.

That said, here’s the first part of my key takeaways from two packed days:

Clayton Christensen kicked off the event showing us how to create disruptive innovation and what happens to many companies without them realizing it. Key here is how managers consistently do what’s right for the business by increasing bottom line results by outsourcing but then find themselves without much of a company left.

He used the example of Dell and AsusTek in which Asus started supplying them with circuit boards, then mother boards, then assembling the entire computer, moving on to taking over their distribution, and ultimately product design each time saving Dell 20% on their bottom line. Problem was Dell was left with just their brand and Asus had increased their competency to the point they didn’t need Dell and could simply sell direct to companies like BestBuy.

Same thing happened in the steel industry with micromills making rebar which big steel was happy to get out of and eventually moved up to premium sheet steel which ultimately bankrupted the legacy players like Bethlehem Steel.

And you see this in the car business with Toyota and the Japanese makers pushing aside the U.S. big three and now the Koreans and Chinese are nipping at the Japanese.

The crux is that as a company enters a space and competes, prices fall and they’re forced to move up the ladder to more profitable areas of the business, repeating the cycle.

Rational thinking simply isn’t all that rational.

Outsourcing powered by pursuit of profit often sets in motion disruptive business model liquidation resulting in ultimate failure of the business.

Technology progress that commoditizes expertise plays a key role in disrupting businesses. Need intuitive trial and error problem solving which can often be expensive.

Tony Hsieh delivers happiness

We’ve all heard of Zappos and their quirky culture that lead to their success. Many think they cannot apply these principles in their businesses but it really comes down to mindset. That’s the message Tony Hsieh left us with.

We need to think about what customers expect, actually experience and the stories they tell their friends. To create a culture of happiness you need core values you can commit to. Vision and culture inspire purpose and passion in your employees.

Happiness is really about four things:

  • perceived control
  • perceived progress
  • connectedness
  • vision/meaning.

Within this there are three levels: Pleasure – the fleeting ‘high’ we have to work harder and harder to achieve; engagement – when time flies and the ultimate happiness, meaning, which is sustainable over the long term.

If you pursue your vision and have a purpose, the profits will follow. Much more so than single-minded focus on profit.

Think about how you can apply these principles in your company. Who doesn’t want to be happier? And imagine the productivity and lower turnover you’ll achieve by pursuing this path. Requires that you pull up from the spreadsheet and focus on your people. They’re not inventory or mere resources, but key assets that will differentiate you in the market.

The power of design thinking

Roger Martin then talked about how to create a culture of design thinking. Again, like disruptive innovation, this helps you create a sustainable competitive advantage. The key challenge is balancing analytical thinking with intuitive thinking. Both have their merits but it’s only when you intersect the two that new ideas emerge.

Analytical thinking strives for 100% reliability – a consistent outcome. Intuitive, 100% validity – the outcome you want. In the first, you need to prove your ideas and approach which requires use of existing knowledge. New knowledge requires you to suppress analysis and focus on what might be. And this is the big disconnect.

You can never prove a new idea! And Roger suggests the two most dangerous words in the English language are ‘prove it’. Yet how often have we been tasked with this? What you need to do is design what should be, launch and fill in with data over time to validate your idea. You can simply never do it in advance.  You do this with abductive reasoning – a logical leap of the mind.

Right you say. Not in my company!

He left us with a framework for both designers and managers:

For designers:

  • Look at design hostility as a design challenge
  • Empathize with design unfriendly  elements
  • Speak the language of reliability
  • Use analogies and stories
  • Bite off as little a piece as possible to generate proof.

For Managers:

  • Take inattention to reliability as a management challenge
  • Empathize with ‘reliability’ in unfriendly elements
  • Speak the language of validity
  • Share data and reasoning. Not conclusions
  • Bite off as big a piece as possible to give innovation a chance.

Design thinking is serious business and requires collaboration across a company to be effective. The ideas from these three speakers alone offer significant fuel to inspire most any company to change. But only if internalized and tailored to fit. These are not cookie cutter concepts. You have to go deep to make meaningful change. But powerful they are.

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