Women Leading Innovation

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FountainBlue’s October 12 When She Speaks, Women in Leadership Series event was on the topic of Women Leading Innovation. Below are notes from the conversation.

We were fortunate to have a wide range of experienced and passionate panelists who provided insights, suggestions and advice for the men and women in the audience looking sparking innovation from any chair. Whether it was as part of a marketing communications, engineering, operations, program management or management team or as an outside vendor or consultant, volunteer or adviser, our panelists shared stories about stimulating and catalyzing new ways of thinking, improved thinking and processes, encouraging a more open mind set, a more inquisitive approach.

Although they represented a wide range of backgrounds, successes and interests, our panelists had much in common which positioned them to succeed in leading innovation:

  • The deep and broad technology backgrounds of our panelists have helped them bring new innovations into new projects, technologies, teams, industries and markets.
  • Their range of experience in different roles from engineering to operations to market to management, has positioned them to see how different teams approach the innovation challenge, and assisted them in overseeing innovation throughout an organization and product line.
  • Each of our panelists had current and past experience both with start-ups and with corporate teams, with companies on the rise, and companies managing a down-sizing, with teams positioned as stars, and with tiger teams on fix-it-now projects.
  • It was clear that they succeeded despite the odds, continually failed forward, and consciously integrated learnings to whatever-comes next.

They shared these thoughts about innovation:

  • Innovation is a team sport – everyone has a piece of the puzzle, the more diverse the team and thinking, the more varied the possible solutions and opportunities.
  • Respect both the disruptive new kind of innovation as well as the incremental innovations which improve existing products as well as orthogonal innovation which applies success strategies to other products, concepts, markets, etc. Too often we focus on the most disruptive innovations, thinking that this would be most profitable, but it’s often not the case, and is often the most difficult to plan for, research, and get funding for.
  • Innovation is change that creates value, not change for change’s sake.
  • Innovation is about creating the wow factor, wowing your customers with new technology, product, service this is different, approach to a problem that is new and unique way.
  • Innovation is not just about technologies, for some of the best innovations are around processes, business models, new ways of doing existing things.
  • The best innovations help specific customers get more done more easily and simply.

As our panelists expanded their experience, reputation and capabilities, the gradually tackled broader, stickier more impactful projects. They drew many conclusions from their experiences, and had the following advice:

Focus on the Customer

  • All successful innovations focus on the needs of the customer and market first. Innovation is *not* about a technology looking for a customer.
  • Before you innovate, you must know your target market, and ensure that it’s operationally feasible to deliver a solution for that market sustainably.
  • Do the market research and make sure that you know who the customer is and what the customer is looking for.
  • Note that in general, women tend to be better at anticipating the needs of the user, having empathy for the customer needs, and be more creative about how to address those needs.

See Yourself as an Innovator

  • Think of yourself as both a problem-solver and an innovator and find an innovative way to solve a problem you and your team face.
  • The more you fail and learn, the better positioned you are to take on more difficult challenges.
  • Encourage the whole person to show up at work, not just the part of you that fits your label.

Innovation as a Team Sport

  • Recruit angels advocates and devils advocates to your team, so that you’re more likely to see all sides of each issue.
  • Weave innovation and diverse thinking into day-to-day work activities.
  • Encourage respectful dissent for healthy conflict can be a root of innovation.
  • Eliminate fear, encourage big hairy audacious ideas (BHAGs), embrace failure when there’s a learning.
  • Facilitate cross-functional exposure between people from different roles, industries, levels, technologies, etc.
  • Encourage your female team members to speak up and share their idea(s) and support her when she speaks up.
  • Focus on your areas of strength, and that of your team, and partner with others to deliver a comprehensive solution.

Gender and Innovation

  • Women see product needs differently than men do, and see problem solving in a different way. So it’s important to have women on your team as you work on innovation projects.
  • Girls with supportive fathers and girls who participated in competitive sports were more likely to become women innovators.
  • Women focus more on getting a job done rather than getting credit for an idea, so more often men get the credit for an innovative idea. (Women can be encouraged to both get the job done and ensure that they get credit for the innovative idea.)

Barriers to Innovation

  • You must have the infrastructure in place before an innovation can take hold. Examples include the electric vehicle and the internet. The innovations might have been ready sooner, but without access to charging stations and/or broadband internet, mass adoption can not happen, and production would be too expensive if that can’t happen.
  • Know when to give up on an idea; find the easiest and earliest way to give up, rather than sticking around to don’t polish a turd, you can face the truth early and iterate and recover.

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We would like to thank our panelists for FountainBlue’s October 12 When She Speaks, Women in Leadership Series event was on the topic of Women Leading Innovation:

Facilitator Francine Gordon, FGordon and Associates

Panelist Hillary Barnhart, Senior Director, Business Operations, Applied Global Services, Applied Materials

Panelist Elisa Jagerson, CEO, Speck Design

Panelist Catherine Moore, Head of HR, Nokia Research

Panelist Leila Pourhashemi, Director Technical Services, eBay

Please also join me in joining our gracious hosts at Applied Materials.

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