What four TED talks teach about innovation

Readers of our blog posts already know that Jeanne Yocum  and I  are fans of TED Talks. (Read Jeanne’s previous post on TED Talks here and mine here.) The large volume of diverse talks offered and the ways I can search for something interesting meets my needs for new ideas, professional stimulation, and entertainment. Today I’m sharing four talks that relate to some of my recent posts advocating for entrepreneurship as distinct from small business management. Each of the talks makes an important point about innovation that refutes some commonly heard concerns small business managers often have about getting involved in innovation-based, entrepreneurial projects and offers a lesson learned that can help make your innovation efforts successful.

More of us are capable of innovation and creative problem solving than we think. David Kelley explores the reluctance many adults have when faced with a creative challenge and argues that this is about confidence more than capacity. While some of his work at IDEO and Stanford University is about unleashing creativity by building creative confidence, the talk serves as a reminder of the importance of creating a culture that encourages creative problem solving from every member of your team. Kelley’s example of transforming a scary medical test for sick children into an adventure many enjoy should inspire you to look differently at how customers experience your products and services.

Innovation is about solving a problem in a way that actually helps the user. Jane Chen’s talk, “A Warm Embrace Saves Lives,” tells the story of how focus on the end user, understanding the root of the problem, and resisting the bias of existing solutions enabled her team to develop a $25 solution for keeping premature babies warm where $20,000 incubators don’t. The “Embrace” infant warmer is now being sold and distributed for use in the developing world via a non-profit. I can’t help but wonder when a for-profit subsidiary will make them available in the developed world for ambulances, disaster areas, and community hospitals without neonatal intensive care units.

Multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary teams can yield breakthrough products and truly original solutions but need to overcome the discomfort and barriers that come with such efforts. Tal Golesworthy provides a compelling example of this in his presentation on “How I repaired my own heart.” The next time you find yourself working through a problem with a diverse group recall his matter-of-fact list of obstacles in multi-disciplinary success (jargon; disciplinary conventions; formal and informal institutional barriers; fit with funding sources; and resistance to change/not invented here) as well as the benefits of working together.

More than ever before, innovation is something in which individual and small organizations can participate. Charles Leadbetter explains why innovation is not necessarily about special people in special places. Check out his description of pro-am innovators, organizing without an organization, radical innovation, the importance of getting users involved early as well as his assessment of the limitations large companies face when they try to innovate. While he doesn’t prescribe the role of small business, his points may inspire you to think differently about opportunities for entrepreneurship and innovation in your business.

Aside from the specific lessons and observations each of these talks offer, I find two takeaways that cut through all of them especially useful for all entrepreneurs in existing small businesses:

• Diverse perspectives are powerful. We all have blind spots and the route to seeing around them and making sure they don’t limit your innovation potential is to have people with diverse experience and ideas on your team.

• Innovation goes beyond invention to solve a problem in a way that cost effectively improves the way customers live, work or play, and the value of doing that is one thing on which entrepreneurs and small business managers should agree.


Karen Utgoff, principal of Karen Lauter Utgoff Consulting, is a market-oriented business strategist based in Amherst, MA. Learn more at http://www.utgoff.com.

© Karen Lauter Utgoff Consulting 2012. All rights reserved.

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