Innovate Carolina 2013: What We Learned

For the fourth year running, our growing team at Trig Innovation was proud to participate in the Innovate Carolina conference, the annual signature event of the Product Development and Management Association’s Carolinas chapter.

Representing Trig at this year’s event were our lead business developer, Lilly Ferrick, video and photography specialist Cristina Fletes-Boutte, and principal and founder Ty Hagler.  The fine people at North Carolina A&T State University gave us a warm welcome and a great venue for the event.  We thought we’d share what we learned while at the conference—the only shame is that we couldn’t possibly see and hear every presenter, so this recap, sadly, doesn’t include all of the great contributions made to the experience.

Chris Trimble, a professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business and author of The Other Side of Innovation, opened the conference with an unforgettable talk. Taking a page from the world of mountain climbing, he said that the difference between novice and expert climbers is that the novices celebrate reaching the summit, while experts celebrate when they safely reach the bottom of the mountain again. So it is, as well, with innovation, he said, as the so-called “Big Idea” is only the beginning. 

Trimble went on to illustrate why innovation within large corporations is a difficult enterprise by outlining differences between what he called the Performance Engine and the Innovation Engine. The Performance Engine excels at repeatable, predictable, sustained business execution. To the contrary, the Innovation Engine is non-routine, uncertain, and building something entirely new to the world as the company knows it currently.  Leaders must mitigate the differences between the two, as the respective groups that form these engines within companies do not naturally mesh well. Without effective leadership, the Performance Engine will squash the aims of the Innovation Engine every time.

The key to successfully meshing these two engines successfully, according to Trimble is based on a model where the two engines are separate, but share resources through a partnership. 

As Trimble was wrapping up, we all had an out-of-body experience that placed much more than the conference under threat.  As many now know, reports of a gunman on campus marred the event for a time, but the authorities at NC A&T did a great job of making sure that the conference participants, in addition to thousands of faculty, staff, and students, remained safe and secure as police swept the campus.

So, the first thing we learned at the conference was how blessed we are with resilient leaders in among this group.  The Carolinas chapter is a plucky group, and the morning’s events just seemed to bring out the best in everyone involved as we resumed the conference at mid-day.

Undaunted by the security disruption, the PDMA conference rolled on, and we split into informative breakout sessions led by a great group of innovators throughout the Carolinas. One of our groups gathered together in an auditorium in another building where OVO’s Jeffrey Phillips, the conference organizer, gave an impressive impromptu talk on the process they use for delivering innovation at his consulting firm.  Particularly notable was his discussion on the the proper scoping of an Innovation Charter.  By setting boundary conditions from the very beginning of an innovation engagement, you narrow the scope and give the innovation team better focus and freedom to explore options that match business needs.

With his audience quarantined in front of a women’s restroom on the concourse of the university’s stadium, Jeff Grant of Charlotte’s Invue Security Products served as a model of adaptability, preparedness, and quick-thinking. Lacking a podium, he turned a trashcan up-side down, fashioning it into a de-facto lectern for his laptop-based presentation.  He shared the story of Invue’s development process for bringing a brand new security device to market for their retail customers.  Key to bringing a speed-to-market component to the process was Invue’s “Shop-and-Chop” method, as they bought commercial products and chopped them up to find the useful components inside that would influence their own development.  

Dr. Pamela Henderson, author of Killing Ideas, gave another stellar talk that helped to round out the day, keying in on the nexus of product development, the convergence of design and engineering with marketing and branding. She defined innovators as those who deploy opportunity thinking, creating as big of a pond of opportunity as possible to catch big fish (customers) with innovations.  She noted that teams must hold on to things that may seem weird or peculiar at first iteration, as these ideas are the ones that can be the ones that influence differentiators in the end. And while engineers doing marketing creates a mess, integrating their thinking among the marketers can be valuable, as brands explain technical differences that can shape the product’s marketplace success.

In the end, we learned a lot about ourselves on Friday, April 12, 2013.  The great host team at A&T rose to the occasion in a way they couldn’t possibly have foreseen, and so did the Carolinas PDMA team, from Jeffrey Phillips to all of the presenters and participants.  While the day may have been marked by high stress throughout most of the morning, we will remember it, as we have all the other Innovate Carolina events, as an event that feeds our passion for shaping products and markets.

Ty Hagler

Trig, 510 Meadowmont Village Circle, Chapel Hill, NC, 27517, usa