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My Three Top Takeaways from B. PHL Innovation Fest

I had the pleasure of attending several innovation workshops at the three-day B. PHL Innovation Festival in mid-October.

Designed to showcase how new ideas have taken root in healthcare, technology, engineering, art, and civic services (among others!) in Philadelphia, the festival featured presentations by an impressive array of entrepreneurs, academics, Fortune 500 companies, and government officials. (Our very own Ryan Chen gave a talk on the consumer megatrends of the future.)

Post-festival I took some time to reflect on the methods I learned to spark creativity, encourage lateral thinking, and drive innovation — and that I plan to add to our design and innovation strategy toolbox at Bresslergroup. Below are my top three takeaways:

Takeaway #1 from B.PHL Innovation Fest: Questions are a source of wisdom.

1. Questions are a source of wisdom.

School may have taught us that questions are a source of ignorance — we wouldn’t need to ask if we knew the answer. However, questioning is actually a way of thinking, exploring, and learning. It signifies a mindset that’s open to scrutiny and change. Questions are the root of curiosity: we cannot innovate unless we are curious enough to observe and listen to the world around us, and ask, “Why…?”

Warren Berger, the author of A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas, notes that: “A beautiful question is an ambitious yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something — and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change.”

A beautiful question is an ambitious yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something — and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change.

To that end, after asking, “Why…?” we should shift to “What if…?” What if that rule of the game no longer applied? What if our team no longer had that constraint? What if I could try on a pair of glasses without being in the store? You’ll notice that these questions are generative and expansionist, rather than critical and reductionist, an important distinction brought up by Duncan Wardle, the former Head of Innovation & Creativity at the Walt Disney Company, during his “Imagination Excavation — From Toybox to Toolkit” workshop at B.PHL Fest. Do not censor yourself.

That leads us to the idea generator question: “How…?” How might we deliver an experience that allows our customer to try on glasses at home? Warby Parker’s Virtual Try-On feature renders glasses in a live, 3D preview on one’s face with augmented reality. How might we break that timeless rule-of-the-game? How might we demolish video rental fees forever? How might we solve our problem if we adopted the point of view or strengths of Spotify or Gandhi or our favorite coffee shop?

Asking questions will generate myriad ideas that will expand your sense of the possible: corresponding them to your criteria of success and winnowing your options down can only come after you’ve gone big and ambitious. The Xfinity Mobile team explained in their workshop, “Innovation As It Should Be,” that their own ideas must pass through this filter: Will this fundamentally change consumer behavior?

Takeaway #2 from B.PHL Innovation Fest: Innovation is emotional.

2. Innovation is emotional.

We trust data and metrics and statistics — the quantitative — more than any other type of information. Why? In Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life, Professor Theodore Porter of UCLA calls quantification a “technology of distance” that “minimizes the need for intimate knowledge and personal trust.” Enumeration is impersonal, and suggests objectivity, standardization, and truth. Therefore, it might seem like the safest bet on which to base a new direction, product, or service.

However, this standard cannot apply to radical innovation. As author and strategy advisor Roger Martin put it: “No new thing in this world has ever been proven in advance analytically.” Innovation is taking a step into the unknown, and therefore is an emotional journey that requires looking inward just as much as it requires understanding market opportunities and emerging technologies. Marie McCormick and Liz Alperin Solms of Insyte Partners explained in “B. The Change You Want to See” that their techniques are derived from Theory U, a framework developed at MIT, which emphasizes how self-awareness and inner-knowing are important catalysts of change.

Innovation is taking a step into the unknown — an emotional journey that requires looking inward just as much as it requires understanding market opportunities and emerging technologies.

When tackling a challenge, it is important to understand your fears, frustrations, and hopes. You will need to take stock of the unspoken agreements that have influenced the situation thus far, and the hard truths you need to face if you are going to solve it. In every innovation, something — whether a way of doing things, organizational culture or structure, business model, or product — will need to die, so that something new can be born and emerge.

A significant aspect of leaning into the unknown is the ability to sense and follow your own intuition — a muscle that gets stronger with use. In “How to Apply Audacious Creativity to Transform Your Business,” Natalie Nixon of Figure 8 Thinking defined intuition as a “form of pattern recognition based on mining data from past experiences and exercising sensemaking in the present.” Learning from the past is no longer sufficient on its own — we have to learn from the future that is all around us by sensing the signals and trends that can help crystallize our vision.

Takeaway #3 from B.PHL Innovation Fest: Make visible the invisible.

3. Make visible the invisible.

Imagine your company, team, or product now: What does your physical space look like? What kind of relationships are valued? Who is on the team? What styles of communication and collaboration take place? Which behaviors are rewarded, and which are shunned? Where is there clarity, and where is there confusion? Where does your business play, and what is your main differentiator?

Now, imagine your company, team, or product after your vision has been enacted: How would all of your answers above change if it represented the future that you want to emerge? Make it real. Collage it. Craft a 3D-sculpture. Embody it through dance. Those are all things I did at multiple workshops to better represent current challenges, and to bring to life the future I want.

Make it real. Collage it. Craft a 3D-sculpture. Embody it through dance. Those are all things I did at multiple workshops to better represent current challenges, and to bring to life the future I want.

I can’t overstate how powerful it was to make visible the invisible — to make physical representations of obstacles and ambitions through art. The arts are playful, abstract, and require trusting our intuition — these were not “planned” pieces to create a “perfect” representation. We relied on senses, shapes, colors, and our bodies to convey our visions of the future. Having a physical representation of the future created a touchstone —and helped clarify what would be needed to bring it to life.

Thanks, B.PHL for the inspiration — I can’t wait until next time!

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