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‘How Can I’ Innovation Interview: Gina O’Connor, Babson College

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As part of our FEI ‘How Can I’ LinkedIn interview series, we recently sat down with Gina O’Connor, Professor of Innovation Management at Babson College, to get her advice on how to create transformational value for your business, how to create a culture for disruptors to succeed, how to create a better ecosystem for new ideas, among much more! Read the full interview below:

How can I create transformational value for my business in the future? 

Gina O’Connor: First, realize that you can’t do it alone. Urge your company leadership to identify domains of transformation that they view as their innovation aspirations. That way you’ll get the support you need. Then start the exploration/discovery process to scope out the landscape of the domain you are choosing to play in. You’ll need to describe it in a manner that is compelling, even though you won’t have conventional metrics since there’s too much that’s unknown when you are really creating transformational new businesses.

Once you get organizational commitment and an idea of the richness of the opportunity space…start to incubate. You’ll need doses of funding to pursue important experiments around technology, market and organizational strategy, at the very least. Hopefully your company has an innovation governance team that can work with you and your team to bring the entire business platform (not just one product) to commercial reality.

How can I create a company environment for disruptors to succeed?

GO: Easy. Provide a home for them…an Innovation hub where new business creation is the order of the day. They’ll thrive if you can align the management system of the hub with its mandate…of creating new business options for the company, all of which may be early and ambiguous. Make sure that innovation talent is measured and evaluated appropriately. These people are punished more often than not because they rub against the traditional operational excellence mainstream system. The most important thing that corporate innovators want is recognition and the sense that they’re bringing value to the company and to the market.

How can I better leverage data to drive disruptive innovation at my organization?  

GO: Know when to dig deep into data and when to stay at a high level. There is a risk of drowning in data that bogs us down.  In the world of transformational innovation,  markets don’t necessarily even exist yet. We’re ahead of the data. So, market size, financial returns and all of that good stuff is of no use. Interviews, reactions through extended use trials, and other individual but important conversations are more important sources of data. Once you have a business up and running, data analytics can really help. But in some ways, big data is anathema to strategic innovation. Big data relies on what has already happened. That’s not where we’re looking.

How can I create a better ecosystem for new ideas?

GO: Set up an innovation function in your company. Ensure everyone knows its purpose. Allow it to develop partnership, open innovation models, new modes of experimenting, ways to report small but significant success stories. An innovation function can help your company create tomorrow’s businesses while continuing to maintain and grow today’s. But the two must be managed very differently. Trying to execute on really novel ideas in the operation of today’s business just creates frustration.  Give it a name and a home, and build the necessary capabilities within it of Discovery, Incubation and Acceleration that will allow your strategic innovation portfolio to flourish.

How can I evolve my products to meet future market needs? 

GO: If it’s current products you are talking about, then staying close to the customer is key. If it’s markets and products of the future, then staying abreast of science, technology and social trends will help you see the end game. Then ‘backcast’ to develop the organizational competencies that you’ll need to create that future.

How can I make and deliver products for consumers in the future? 

GO: The consumer market is extremely fragmented, given advancements in manufacturing and delivery technologies along with global hyper competition that exists these days. Product life cycles are extremely short for many categories, and benefits of convenience and customization seem to be key today. Innovations enabling those benefits continue to thrive.

But what about the opposite trend? Building community, taking time to be mindful, and reducing waste are emerging trends in society. Paying attention to those may be of importance in the next decade. Developing loyalty through brand meaning makes all the difference, but even that no longer carries the staying power it once did. To me, the surest approach to success is to work on tough problems whose solutions will bring real value to peoples’ quality of life…not incremental innovations that crowd store shelves and websites.  

Gina will be presenting a keynote session, “What’s Your Innovation Type,” at FEI 2020 in Boston, MA on Wednesday, May 6th at 11:10 AM EST. Based on a major research program undertaken in three phases over twenty years, Gina will describe three important organizational capabilities necessary to ensure breakthroughs are commercialized on a somewhat regular basis, the characteristics of innovators who excel at each of those, and a summary of innovation leadership and support roles. View more information here:

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