We provide the vision and technology strategy to enable breakthrough innovation.

Techxposé last week was surprisingly successful as a conference. Why a surprise? Well not because of the venue – our events team works like a well-oiled machine, and our design space in San Francisco is delightful. It was more because the topic worked - “Navigating the edge… adversity when the stakes are high” as our event website claimed.

I was sceptical. I’ve seen a lot of panel sessions and it is rare to find speakers who are prepared to talk about difficulties as well as successes. I remember getting very frustrated at FEI a few years back when a 3M person had a slot on the challenges in innovation. They presented nothing but self-righteous process. Trying to learn from their well-heeled script would be like me trying to run by copying Mo Farah. Life just isn’t like that and nor is innovative development.

So we were very lucky last week to have three speakers who spoke quite openly. The three all had very different perspectives. Naomi Kelman of recent start-up Willow, focussed on their story of “reimagining the category” rather than “making today’s products better”. Rob Coneybeer, an experienced VC from Shasta Ventures, focussed on the difference between table stakes and delivering high value in his ventures. Goran Kukic, from Nestlé, focussed on the particular challenges of innovation in an organisation that sells 1.8M products per day. I’m under-qualified to give a full review but here are three things I learned.

Firstly, when prototyping, it’s tempting to start with the tangible bits, digital or physical. But if your product has core software, start with that, as it can be the software that delivers on the promise of the high value to the customer and the business. And by the way don’t trust 3D printed prototypes, they are misleading things in the wrong hands, especially when your physical product has a very high level of integration.

Secondly, as Rob put it, “hardware development is like Evel Knievel...you’ll break more bones if you take off the gas at the last second.” In other words, don’t run out of time, money or resources when you are ramping up into production.  This is the worse time to hold back.

And thirdly, don’t ask for permission. If you believe in something, even in a big corporate, be prepared to make your case strongly but don’t wait to be given the go-ahead. If this sounds like a recipe for getting fired then make sure you have a culture that will support some risk taking.

All of these are things that resonated with my experiences and it was useful to be reminded of them. The panellists agreed with something I firmly believe, to roughly quote Rob again, “the difference between success and failure in delivering high value is deeply understanding your customers”. In my new role I was lucky enough to be in a client meeting the very next day where I witnessed the fantastic team in our San Francisco office putting all this into practice.

We should do this more often. Lessons learned on projects are about difficulties, even unresolved ones, as well as triumph, and we don’t share them often enough. It reminds me of the “startup funerals” from a few years back, and which spurred the immortal line, “If you've had too much Kool-Aid, you need some antifreeze” (If you are going to google this, by the way, do startup funerals not funeral startups as this gives quite a different result).

Whichever of our offices Techxposé lands in next time, I hope it builds on this theme, and I look forward to it.

Duncan Smith
EVP, North America