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A first timer and an old timer look back on FEI 2018

We have finished three days of drinking hot espresso from a firehose at Front End of Innovation. It is a profound amount of content, yet even an hour after, the patterns start to emerge as we ponder the experience. In our case, we have a first-timer and an old-timer converging to consume, contemplate, and create. We’re going open up our notebooks, recordings, and exhaustive google doc notes, in order to share a conversation between newbie (Kelly Leighton) and oldie (Aaron Keller).

AK: So, Kelly, what phrases, words, and thoughts are still ringing in your ears?
KL: I tried to approach each session through the lens of a curious, innovation neophyte; leaving behind any preconceived notions of what I thought innovative thinking entailed. And there were a number of learnings that fascinated and frustrated me.

“Consumer-centric” approaches to designing and innovating was a common term thrown around this week. As a proponent of the humanization of design thinking, it’s heartening that the industry sees continued value in people-focused strategy. However, I found myself confused by how interchangeable the terms “consumer” and “human/people” have become. As nuanced as the distinctions may be, I do believe these monikers have enough noted disparities that one would be remiss to not consider adjusting their design approach to consider the true end audience.

I’d like to think today’s design and innovative thinking takes into account all of the complexities of human behaviors and cultures and doesn’t focus solely on how/why people consume to merely keep the economy humming along.

One of my favorite quotes that speaks to this, came out of the “design thinking to design doing” session, presented by David Dombrowski and Anthony Lambrou of Pfizer. They shared perspectives on a people-focused, innovation framework and appropriately referenced a quote by IDEO CEO, Tim Brown: “Design thinking is a human centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.”

Analyzing and understanding consumerism certainly has its place in innovation and design, but my hope is we don’t lose sight of the humanity behind the data.

KL: Aaron, you’re up! As you compare this year’s FEI to the past, what pivots have you seen in the approach to innovative thinking and application, specifically within the corporate sector?
AK: Freaky tough question Leighton, you must believe I have some recollection of years past? This year seemed like an ecosystem year, by that I mean the big brands were talking about their complete system of innovation (people, process, motivation, structure, outcomes, etc).

And, surround those conversations, the authors, smaller brands and subject matter experts were talking about many of the same tried, yet true methods. As a practitioner of design thinking methods, it was good to see an entire track dedicated to the subject. And, as a person fueled by gobs and gobs of content, the 2x speed of delivery from many of the sessions was highly rewarding.

AK: Back to you Kelly, what freaked you out most in the presentations and conversations?
KL: So, I would say I was more fascinated with, than freaked out by, the technological advances coming down the pike and the potential impacts, both good and perhaps not-so-good. Studies show that within 12 years, 95% of our transportation options will be fully autonomous - in 12 years! Super cool for those of us who like to enjoy a cup o’ joe and scan our digital WSJ on the way to work.

And in healthcare, technology will soon integrate sensored technology that monitors an individual’s health stats through innocuous means, such as sensored toilets and mirrors in an employee’s place of work. Obviously, this technology will enhance our ability to make informed decisions about our own health and in turn can save lives. The only concern there is how that personal data is then shared and used. Surely, insurance companies could indirectly use this data to deny coverage; or an employer may subconsciously label an employee as a health risk and thus not a viable option for that next promotion… But I’m surmising (hoping) that the positives far outweigh the negatives of these accelerating technologies and that we remain mindful of the human components of the innovation landscape.

KL: Okay, Aaron, question back to you. What topic did you find most controversial this week? And why do you think said topic may have ruffled some feathers?
AK: Michael Fanuele, formerly of General Mills, declared a visceral hatred for Bono of U2 and his overt cause focus in all aspects of his life. He came back around to admit he was pulled into a concert and found himself arms up and swaying with the crowd. So, while his early declaration may have opened some mouths to a gaping degree, he brought us back into his favor by the finish of his speech.

AK: What word do you think you heard most? What do you think would happen if we require everyone to remove that word from their lexicon?
KL: Disruptors/Disruption. I actually like many of the connotations associated with these terms: challenge the norm, question the status quo, entrepreneurial resolve, unseating the dominant product or service providers of a given industry, shake things up a bit...

But does this industry buzz language aptly represent the innovative spirit that aims to supplement/enhance an existing platform, product or service? Isn’t there room for altruistic innovation, alongside the disruptive kind that comes in like a wrecking ball to obliterate the establishment?

If we require everyone to remove the word “disruptor/disruption” from their industry lexicon, perhaps we could collectively agree upon a word that fully embodies the varied mindsets of today’s creative thinkers, visionaries, and innovators.

KL: What was your favorite suggested approach to introducing and integrating new technology (AR, VR) into a conservative corporate culture?
AK: My favorite was Jeff Immelt of GE who must have had the hardest job of folding in digital and new technologies into an engineering and manufacturing company. Not only was he facing the perception of GE not being digital or modern in a technological way, he also had to change the reality.

His approach was to create a horizontal digital expertise across a variety of their sectors. Using a digital leader as the pivot point between the existing divisions and the new digital teams. While he even admitted they still didn’t get it entirely right, it was a successful move for the culture of GE.

Which, by the way, was one of the refreshing pieces of Jeff’s speech, he overtly admitted where they didn’t get it right, whatever it was.

AK: What suggestions would you have for newbies heading to Front End of Innovation next year? What should they do to get the most out of the show?
KL: Come with an open and curious mind. Ask questions. Connect with other attendees; exchange insights. Wear comfortable shoes. And if FEI continues its run in the city of Boston - make sure you visit Mike’s Pastry on Hanover for a post-conference cannoli to satiate your sweet tooth.

KL: What industry do you think has the most obstacles and biases to overcome when it comes to innovative thinking?
AK: This may seem counterintuitive, but I think the world of Google, Facebook, and many of the digital giants have the most obstacles and biases. Just the fact that Google admitted they missed “social” entirely is an example of a corporate bias that didn’t allow them to see this change to the media landscape.

Coupled with this is the obstacle of legal and cultural constraints keeping these large digital players from attending an FEI (or other cross-industry events), learning from outside their industry and collaborating -- will be a hindrance for certain. The future goes to the humble, but it also delivers a punch in the face for the arrogant and insular.

Society looks at Silicon Valley and sees the best and brightest going there to achieve greatness, but their obstacles and biases are just amplified.

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