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PDS Connect speaker argues for broader definition of innovation

The opening keynote speaker for PDS Connect 2017, David Robertson, argues that companies should strive for innovation without restricting themselves to immediately profitable ideas.

Robertson, a former LEGO Professor of Innovation and Technology Management at Switzerland’s Institute for Management Development, now holds a position as senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

“I urge you to adopt a broader definition, that a new match between a solution and a need creates value,” Robertson said to a crowd of several hundred at the Potawatomi Hotel and Casino in Milwaukee yesterday. “It doesn’t have to be a new solution; it doesn’t have to be a new need; but if you can bring things together in a different way, that counts as innovation.”

He also said innovation could take the form of step-by-step advancement, as in the example of Apple’s first iPod, which he said represented “a set of well-synthesized, incremental improvements” on what was already on the market.

“I urge you not to put a test of profitability on each individual innovation,” he said. “iTunes was unprofitable for the first years of its existence, even when they started selling music.”

He noted that this early product worked as a straightforward MP3 management system for music files, but two years later when the iTunes store opened, the company was still more focused on building out the digital market since “that would make the iPod more valuable.”

He said Apple deliberately innovated in that case without a thought for short-term profitability, because the company was thinking of broader profitability in the long-run.

One unique example of a new match between solution and need, he said, is the case of Bart Weetjens, a Belgian product engineer who quit his job to become a Zen Buddhist priest and began looking for a problem to solve.

The issue he settled on was the multitude of unexploded landmines and other explosives in African conflict zones. The solution he came up with: giant African rats.

Though much bigger than most rats found in the United States, these animals were light enough to find landmines without setting them off when they stepped on them, unlike dogs. This was also a better solution than using metal detectors, which can’t hone in on landmines in particular.

“They can do more in 20 minutes than a well-to-do person with the best available technology could do in a couple of days,” Robertson said.

Weetjens created a training program around this model, then took his innovation and spread it to other parts of the world.

“I think that’s a great example of an innovation,” Robertson said. “There’s nothing new about training rats -- we’ve been doing that for a while -- and there’s nothing new about finding unexploded bombs… he brought them together in a new way.”

Robertson also made the point that innovation in one area can lead to even greater innovation in others.

Weetjens ended up putting these trained rats to work on an even bigger issue for Africa: tuberculosis.

“He trained his rats to sniff out tuberculosis… and it works better than the test that’s affordable in Africa now,” Robertson said. “He’s actually saving many more lives than he was with the landmines.”

Robertson also characterized innovation as a process of dating customers, rather than waging a war against competitors.

“If you think of innovation as fighting the competition, what you do is you go and watch what the competition is doing, what features, functions, pricing models they have, trying to come up with something even better -- you go back and forth and everybody becomes a commodity and everybody is miserable,” he said.

In contrast, he said, the process of innovating should involve getting to know the customer better by developing that relationship.

“What do they care about? What are their hopes and dreams, fears and passions, and how do you connect with them in more different ways? How do you become a bigger part of their life?” he said. “That’s the way we should be thinking about innovation.”

--By Alex Moe


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