The Age of Intelligence: How to Spur & Nurture Innovation Today

May 28, 2024

Robert Grace highlights the points covered in an Innovation Panel at Fibertech 2024. This story is also published on Design News.

Experts examine how the pandemic changed the way in which corporations innovate and how teams do –– or don’t –– collaborate.

By Robert Grace

COVID-19 changed everything –– including how companies innovate and individuals interact. And now, four years later, some are still struggling with the “new normal.”

The topic of how to stimulate and nurture innovation was the focus of a panel discussion at the recent Fibertech 2024 conference in Chattanooga, Tenn. Organized by materials design specialist Techmer PM LLC, this 25thedition of Fibertech used the panel to examine the very nature of creativity and innovation in current times.

Titled “Innovation in the Intelligent Age,” the 75-minute session featured three diverse leaders –– Platt Boyd, Marc Shillum and Jenny Whitener. [Full disclosure, this journalist moderated the panel.]  

Boyd is an Alabama architect who founded Chattanooga-based 3D printing construction company Branch Technology in 2014. Shillum is a British-born, San Francisco-based designer, entrepreneur and cross-disciplinary consultant. And Whitener is the former Americas chief learning officer for Cap Gemini/Ernst & Young who in 2002 founded Bridge Innovate Inc. in Rossville, Ga., and continues to serve as CEO and strategy lead of that leadership consultancy.

Whitener, who has been advising corporations and senior executives about leadership skills and innovation strategy for more than 25 years, saw COVID-19 as a sort of watershed moment in business. She saw some of her clients, out of necessity, gain the confidence to accelerate innovation.

“It’s the whole concept of crisis is a mother of invention.” Some, she said, “discovered the ability to collaborate across companies, across communities, [and found] the ability to rapidly iterate and test and scale innovation in a matter of days, rather than in a matter of a matter of years.”

The “Apollo 13” movie, she noted, is a great example of how the crisis was the catalyst for some very rapid and quite amazing design that brought a crew home from space. “Regardless of your academic expertise, it’s easy to fall victim to patterns and limitations that inhibit bold design.”

Outsourcing innovation

Others, however, struggled mightily. “In fact,” Whitener told attendees, “some large corporates have almost eliminated an internal innovation capability and only do innovation through acquisition.” That could involve acquiring an entire company, a specific talent, or intellectual property. But the challenge then becomes how to integrate that new capability into that the existing business structure.

What we often see is they’ll go through all this effort to find a startup, find a new capability, and try to bolt it into the new corporate only to have the corporate culture completely kill it.

“Yes, the acquisition gives you speed …,” she said, “but the real challenge then is how to integrate them into the corporation. … How do you ensure that that investment pays off?”

New challenges, new competition

Boyd brought his perspective on COVID’s impact on an ultra-conservative industry such as construction. The pandemic forced the hands of many in his sector. Out of necessity, the construction industry suddenly started adopting new technologies that they had long resisted. That, in a way, he said, was a silver lining of COVID, at least for that industry.

Shillum, who has worked with the likes of eBay, Nike, Lego, Condé Nast, Disney, and Aston Martin, sees another potential sea-change in the competition landscape.

COVID caused various long-standing structures to collapse –– logistics, human infrastructure, etc. People began working at home, using tools that can be effective and yet are relatively cheap. “Think about the kind of people you’re going to compete against in this new age,” he said. Going forward, Shillum said, tiny companies can take on much larger enterprises. “Think about their nimbleness and their cost of overhead and of doing business.”

The broader impact

These changes are impacting individuals and departments well beyond the C-suite. Engineers, designers, and marketers will all feel the effects.

Shillum, in a post-panel interview, put it this way:  “This folds back into a much larger problem –– the false separation of design and engineering. If we go back a century this wasn’t the case. Design and engineering are intrinsically linked, and innovation is one of the major places this is true.

“We try to build things that are valuable for people; the end experience of the products and services we make is designed, even if a designer wasn’t involved. Over time, we become desensitized to customer needs and instead fall back on existing processes and iterative evolutions of products that have worked.”

Design and the innovation it spurs, he continued, is obsessed with smashing that mindset and creating products and services that answer new needs, that spur new products and markets.

“As the tools of production, at scale, are becoming more democratized, and the intelligence needed to find new products becomes more computational, more people have access to the ability to develop what’s next.”

Leveraging AI

The panel also discussed the real and likely impacts of artificial intelligence (AI) on the innovation process.

Speaking as an architect, Boyd said he doesn’t see AI replacing creativity, but rather supplementing it and speeding the process. He notes that his innovative ideas come from his personal experience.  “But if you have the entire internet’s experience of seeing things … then [AI] brings that to the table. … So I’m very bullish on AI and how we might integrate that.”

Whitener agreed. “We see extraordinary potential with it.” AI can greatly accelerate the pace of analyzing incoming customer data, for example.

Shillum, for his part, says that he has seen machine learning’s ability to help and assist people to be better at their jobs. “That means that you can distribute those jobs further apart because knowledge becomes better distributed. And that assistance to the system means you can scale businesses much, much faster and without a drop in quality.”

The benefits of ‘difficult people’

Then, there is the very human aspect of managing businesses and nurturing innovation.

Shillum says, “Organizations are like sandpaper; they tend to wear you down pretty quick. I love resilience. An innate characteristic of, shall we say ‘difficult people’ is that they’re very hard to wear down.

“It’s important to bring different kinds of mindsets into the organization. Difficult people need careful handling. It’s important to create safe spaces for them to operate, much like Steve Jobs did for his designers within Apple.”

Critical skills needed

From a people standpoint, Whitener cited certain critical skills –– curiosity, critical thinking, and leadership. “If you’re not guiding the leadership culture, they’ll kill the curiosity and they’ll kill the creative thinking and the critical thinking.”

Boyd said: “The best ideas come from the people who encounter the problem. And so it’s bottom up.” He recalled how Branch implemented the recommendation of one of his board members who suggested the company launch a “demo day,” once a quarter, at which anybody in the company could pitch anything. They had to do it in five minutes or less, and it had to be about whatever they saw as a problem for the company.   

So, they implemented the concept, with Boyd unsure how it was going to go. “People started coming up with some crazy ideas, but really good ideas and pitched them to the whole company.” He says that Branch ended up implementing about 70 percent of those ideas over time. “People felt empowered to share their ideas,” he said.

Setting expectations

Shillum said that expectation-setting with the executive team is vital. Rather than asking how much money a new idea can generate, the better questions to ask, he suggests, are “How does it challenge your logistics and infrastructure? How does it challenge people?”

Shillum quoted former Apple Design Director Jony Ive as saying how “new ideas are fragile.” The point is that they have to be fragile, and one shouldn’t be applying mature criteria to a fragile idea. Rather, “How do we create a finishing school for new ideas? And how do we speed them up, and manage expectations around them? “

Stay curious

Whitener stressed the importance of encouraging curiosity within your organization. In staff meetings, ask employees what they are curious about. Stress critical thinking –– create failure scenarios and then ask your people to come up with ways to overcome the problem.

When you’re thinking about launching innovation in your own organization, Whitener says the leadership team must come together and set forth a vision… of where they want to from the top.”

It’s also important, she stressed, to support internal innovation efforts adequately –– give people the time, resources, knowledge and skills to succeed.

The importance of beauty

Branch Technology, meanwhile, emphasizes the importance of what Boyd calls “designed beauty” as one of its core values.

“We celebrate beauty and love when our end product is as beautiful and elegant as it can be. We don’t settle for mediocrity but take the time and effort needed to create integrated solutions, expecting innovation to reveal the best solutions. Complexity is embraced, patterns are observed, principles are derived, and solutions are designed that move from complexity to elegant simplicity.

This,” he says, “is all about having the right people at the table who can collaborate to come up with an elegant solution.”

Keys to Collaboration

Whitener, also in a post-panel interview, agreed but offered a slightly different take.

“Collaboration for diverse perspectives is also a technique many engineers fail to tap into as it is human behavior to communicate with those ‘like us.’  Many innovators find inspiration in analogous situations or adjacent areas through unlikely collaborations. 

“How might engineers not only be the designers of great solutions but be the champions for business cultures that embrace the skills and abilities for broad-based innovation capacity? Their vision, problem-solving abilities, and test/learn acumen are key skills for agile business. We need engineers not only in the lab but in the C-suite!”

The Age of Intelligence

Shillum said that now, after the pandemic, he believes we are entering into the Age of Intelligence. This encompasses AI, smart technologies, 3D-printed drones, and the like.

“If I’ve learned anything,” he said, “it’s that innovation happens. So, it’s not whether you’re going to innovate; it is happening somewhere, and it will happen. The question is: ‘Are you with the game?'”

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This article is also published on Design News.

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Techmer PM LLC
Steve Loney
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