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A Best Kept Secret in Innovation

One of the best-kept secrets in the world of innovation is The American Innovation Institute, based in Waltham, Massachusetts. Actually, it’s not so much a secret as it is a new organization that happens to sound like one that’s been around since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Founded by Arthur Nelson, a scientist/businessman/entrepreneur who has founded a total of nineteen corporations – both for-and not-for-profit – in a career spanning over 50 years, AII is his latest attempt to promote innovation as a tool for positive social change. In fact, AII is barely three years old.

This new/old dichotomy took on a physical dimension this past June 5, when AII hosted its 2nd Annual Conference at the Charles River Museum of Industry, also in Waltham – and another of New England’s best kept secrets. This little gem of a museum, housed in a historic riverfront factory building, is filled with the artifacts of American technology used to build a fledgling nation into an industrial powerhouse. It was the ideal setting for a conference on innovation: a meeting of past, present and future.

I had the pleasure of helping design this year’s conference, whose theme was developing new management strategies for maximizing the innovative potential of employees. It is certainly a topic that would merit our interest at any given time, but perhaps even more so now, as we look longingly back upon the previous decade’s unprecedented growth and wonder what’s going to keep our economic engines in forward gear as we move on, even if not at the same feverish pace of the 90’s. The answer is – as it always has been in this country – good old American ingenuity. This begins and ends with the ability of enterprises to attract and retain bright, creative employees, and to encourage their collaboration with colleagues in generating new ideas and building new concepts. This may relate to dreaming up new products and technologies, developing more efficient workflows, reducing costs and waste, improving customer service, among others. Whatever the objectives, an organization’s innovation capacity is the key ingredient for achieving them in the 21st Century, and that’s what people at the conference were there to explore.

And explore they did. The museum itself is filled with hundreds of stimulus items for generating beginning ideas for brainstorming: factory machines, old cars and bicycles, models of trains from a bygone era, tales of invention and discovery, and timepieces – many, many timepieces – as Waltham stands as one of the great watch producing centers of the last century. Armed with “I-Zone” instant cameras donated by Polaroid, conference-goers captured these images and used them to make connections between past, present and future (e.g., an intricate assembly of gears gave someone an idea of how to mesh unequally-sized but equally important functions within his organization).

Besides attendees’ own invention processes around the theme of the day, they were also treated to a set of concurrent workshops centering around the concept of innovation: the role of executive leadership, virtual teams, thinking strategies for change, innovation-conducive physical environments, non-monetary compensation, open-minded development of ideas (offered by yours truly), and determining your creative problem-solving profile. Perhaps the highlight of the day was our keynote speaker, Londonderry, NH’s own Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield Farms Yogurt, who spoke not so much about innovation practices or techniques that have resulted in his brand’s becoming the fastest-growing yogurt in the country, but rather the commitment of employees and the appeal to consumers of a product that embodies a particular world view. “Encoding the mission into the products” is a phrase we won’t soon forget.

AII’s own mission is one of its most appealing aspects. It is “to increase the innovative capacities of small and mid-sized organizations in order to better equip them to accomplish their unique missions to educate and network across sectors those organizations who have traditionally not had access to cutting-edge innovation research and best practices.”

In other words, it is not merely about supporting innovation in the deep-pocketed Fortune 1000, nor jump-starting the next round of dot com startups, whatever their incarnation may be. Rather, it’s about recognizing that the various sectors of our society – including high-tech business, blue collar manufacturing, local government, social services, public and private schools – all have innovators within their ranks, all need more, and can all learn from one another. The attendees at AII’s 2nd Annual Conference were a veritable melting pot of innovation-seekers, to the benefit of all. If diversity of experience and perspective is a key ingredient for innovation – and it is – then it would appear AII is certainly on the right track.

Credit: Jeffrey A. Govendo