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“There are problems in the world that cannot be changed by money,” Alfia Ilicheva
Dispelling “the entrepreneurial myth” of being hit by a lightening bolt of a brilliant idea that then becomes the next Facebook or Google, Alfia Ilicheva and Maria Potorczyn, Cofounders of the educational nonprofit Women in Innovation, reminded us that Facebook and Google did not come out of the box as they are today. They started as technologies that were addressing a simple issue that the founders were looking for and went through a massive number of iterations to find their value and business model.
Focused on “what drives enduring innovation,” Ilicheva and Potorczyn teach innovation to women in New York City, and have volunteer networks in London and San Francisco too. They both also have intense day jobs working in innovation. Alfia Ilicheva is a Managing Director of R/GA Ventures, an innovation consulting firm, and Potorczyn works in Strategy & Innovation at Citi’s Global Consumer Bank.
Each has been in innovation consulting for over 10 years, coming from distinctly different paths and bringing distinctly different perspectives to the innovation process, which is what they think makes their partnership successful. Potorczyn comes from social anthropology mixed with media and communications. Seeing a lecture by the design and innovation firm IDEO in her undergraduate program, she felt she had found where she belongs and pursued a Masters in Innovation in the U.K. Ilicheva comes from “a passion for unpacking complex problems” in companies, governments and countries, and an epiphany about why big companies fail led her to innovation.
Why “women” in innovation?
“Our goal is to close the gender gap in business and thought leadership in the innovation industry,” Ilicheva said. “We recognize that women add fundamentally different and unique and a very powerful contribution to creating new ideas, new products, new services.”
What is “innovation”?
Let’s make sure we are all on the same page. What is innovation?
“For us, innovation is being relevant, being new, but also being smart. How does your business pivot? How does your idea pivot?” Icheva explained. Significant opportunities don’t just magically appear out of thin air; “you’re strategically, mindfully creating these opportunities.”
The goal of the Women in Innovation (WIN) sessions, they told me is “making innovation more strategic, more predictable and more valuable to the teams and businesses (their) members represent.”
At the core of how to do so, lies a more complex definition of innovation, which Ilicheva defined this way: “Innovation is the creation of something fundamentally new and relevant, that is typically an outcome of inductive and deductive reasoning, backed by research, design and technology and coming to life through a rigorous strategy and test and learn methodology…It has to have value as a business.”
How to “do’ innovation
Here are 10 key elements of successful innovation from our discussion:
- Know how to tell the story of your ideas. You’ll have to “sell” your idea either internally to your team, or to clients, or investors (or all of them), so you need to know how do so. For example, Ilicheva told me the fun story of how she used pictures made by her 3-year old child’s preschool class, when she talked to the kids about what “innovation” is, with a client in a related industry.
- Establish expectations. WIN participants “pledge” to abide by certain behaviors in the sessions, including: a spirit of collaboration; respecting others and their intellectual property that is shared with the group; and agreeing to “constructive debate” without harmful communication. People who betray these principles are asked to leave.
- Have a multi-generational, multi-experience team. This is crucial to being able to address the “multi-faceted” challenges and stakeholders in the world today, because each generation, each individual comes with different perceptions, perspectives and ideas that contribute. Be intentional about what types of perspectives you need on the team to best understand and serve all the stakeholders.
- “Borrow from different playbooks”. “Have a starting point. Then, use creativity, logic, credibility and empathy, borrowing from different playbooks, to take a problem and make it new and magical,” Ilicheva said.
- Establish trust. “You cannot get to incredible solutions unless you have so much trust in the team that’s developing them that no one is afraid to speak up and speak out…that everyone feels empowered to have a dissenting opinion and to bring it forth,” Potorczyn insisted. This is easier said than done, because most organization’s cultures focus on consensus and do not generally welcome dissent.
- Use conflict as a tool and a strategy. Debate, or “managed conflict” is a key component of the innovation process, because you can’t achieve something new if everyone always agrees. In their WIN workshops, they call it “constructive conflict.” It’s based on trust.
- Practice “humble inquiry.” It’s important that the parties “respond” to the ideation and debating process, instead of “react” as if it’s personal. “Responding” is seeking to understand, of what they called ”humble inquiry, which is being genuinely curious without having a predisposition,” Ilicheva explained.
- Talk to humans about their real life problems. Too often we rely on market research, which is important, but as the lean startup method recommends, go out and talk to real people wrestling with these real issues.
- Get the very rough product out fast and iterate quickly. Be clear on the “value you want to test,” Potorczyn suggested, and get it to see how your market experiences it and interfaces with it, then revise it accordingly.
- Be in tune with the needs of different stakeholders. You are setting up an expectation that you’ll serve their needs, so you need to be cognizant of what those specific needs are. Having a diverse team, talking to humans in your market, practicing “humble inquiry,” and iterating quickly are all critical to doing so.
The bottom line of any innovation is adding value. So, “focus on adding value,” Ilicheva summarized, which is good career advice too.
April 9, 2019 at 10:05PM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs