Bill O’Connor is the Innovation Strategist at Autodesk, the 3D design, engineering and entertainment software and services company. He was an early supporter of Harvest Summit’s vision to ignite innovation by convening a diverse mix of leaders and thinkers. “The idea that Harvest Summit will spark real, substantive conversations with smart people, and that we’ll share useful insights about our work, got my attention.” Keep up with Bill and the Autodesk Innovation Genome @autodesk or @OConnorAutodesk.
We sat down with Bill to ask him about his role, current projects and future outlook.
What do you do as Autodesk’s Innovation Strategist?
I work to develop, improve, and coordinate the various innovation programs at Autodesk. I also lead the Autodesk Innovation Genome, which is an innovation project we’ve been developing for the past five years.
What is the Innovation Genome?
The Autodesk Innovation Genome is a systematic study of history’s 1,000 greatest innovations, designed to help us develop techniques for real innovation. So far we’ve studied 350 innovations going back 3.5 million years, and as a result we’ve created a five-step methodology that helps people, teams, and companies do real innovation.
What are the five steps, can you share a little bit about each?
Step 1: Sketch out your Innovation landscape. A kind of aerial view of the landscape in which you might have opportunities to innovate. You start with four essential building blocks for this visualization: company, customers, competition, and context. Then you draw connections, lines of influence, and otherwise illustrate what your landscape looks like.
Step 2: Use this fleshed out map to generate what we call Innovation Targets. These targets are powerfully crafted single sentences, each of which outlines a specific area to which you think innovation could be easily applied. For example, you might create an innovation target around leveraging the emerging power of the Internet of Things. It could also be a very audacious goal, like launching three radically different products within the next year. Usually we help people generate from three to five Innovation Targets, then we take them through the rest of the process, one Innovation Target at a time.
Step 3: Generating Innovation ideas. After studying Innovation systematically, we have identified a specific set of questions that generate a tremendous range of new and different ideas. As we generate these ideas, we develop and combine them, looking for the strongest proposition possible.
Step 4: Prioritize the ideas. We do this by asking two questions about each idea: how “wild” is it, and how “worldly” is it? By wild, we mean how different, surprising or radical is it, and what is its overall potential for creating change in a very impactful way. By worldly, we mean how practical is it? Basically, how realistic is it to attempt this idea? Based on that prioritization, we are looking for the highest ranked ideas: for example, a 7/7 idea is one that the group has ranked as both pretty wild and pretty worldly, i.e.:, the idea is definitely worth serious consideration.
Step 5: Select the highest rated Innovation ideas and convert them into Innovation Projects. This is the essential and final step, because in order for real Innovation to happen it has to be approached in a way that all organizations can understand and measure. No matter how dysfunctional or traditional an organization may be, they all have some mechanisms in place to execute projects, so we utilize this aspect to develop innovation projects. Ending up with an actual project to execute is one of the reasons that these techniques have gained a certain amount of traction in recent years: because once you take all that theoretical and airy talk about innovation and ground it in projects, it becomes harder to avoid doing them, because after all, working on projects is what we all do at work, right?
What’s the single biggest threat to innovation?
A sleepy satisfaction with the status quo, combined with an instinctual fear of exploring/experimenting with new things. Fortunately, both of these things can be overcome.
Innovators have certain characteristics. In your view what are they?
Some traits I have recognized are: a desire to do or make things better; a love of exploration/experimentation; a certain amount of courage/confidence to break away from the pack; and a determination to fight for your ideas out in the real world until they, too, are real.
Do you recommend executives read books on innovation, disruption and exponential growth? Which ones?
Most are pretty bad, but some are good to great. I like “Growing a Business,” by Paul Hawken, and “Thriving on Chaos,” by Tom Peters, old school books that still make sense. Tom Kelley’s “The Art of Innovation” is also very good. Studying people like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk can also help. Most of the books are what I call “Innovation Poetry,” and as a result, are pretty much IBNU: Interesting But Not Useful. So yes, read books on this stuff, but choose carefully.
You attend conferences on innovation around the world. What makes some better than others?
Most of them are pretty blah. The better ones inspire/empower people to interact in exciting and useful ways with other participants; offer speakers who are not talking about the same old stuff; and (ideally) allow you to bring your own work/challenges and make progress on them right at the conference. Re: that last point, the HARVEST SUMMIT is one of the few that is going to do it right, I think.