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Innovation Minus the Buzzwords

Innovation is more susceptible to buzz words and clichés than most industries.  Partly because innovation is driving Silicon Valley, technology and all the relatively recent dramatic changes in our lifestyles, partly because it’s made a lot of people incredible sums of money incredibly quickly, and maybe because if you don’t do it, it’s hard to understand the nuts and bolts of innovation.  

We sat down with Harvest Council Member Michael Perman, Imaginative Innovation Leader, C’EST WHAT? to break down innovation – what does it mean, how does it happen and how is it changing.  Michael is the Former Dean of Innovation at Gap. and has held multiple roles at Levi’s, including Senior Director of Global Marketing, Consumer Insights and Innovation.

What are some of the key ingredients of innovation? Why?

Innovation is the ability to perceive alternative realities and the courage to move toward with those visions.  So, the key ingredient for perceiving is really about insights and opening up your mind to new possibilities.  The courage aspect comes from constant experimentation and iteration.  

What are some of the most used and abused axioms about innovation?

There are two common axioms that I don’t support.  One is “innovation is everyone’s job”.  I don’t think that’s any more accurate than accounting being everyone’s job.  It sounds exciting and it’s good to have empathy, but it’s not realistic.   The other axiom is “fail fast and often”.   I think that is a ridiculous and destructive statement.   I would replace it with “experiment often, learn constantly”.

Do you have interesting stories of failure or success of innovation projects? Lessons learned?

A while back at Levi’s, we learned about a denim fabric that was treated to be water repellent.  We shared that with consumers and they thought it would be helpful if you were walking in the rain or if someone spilled a drink on your pants at a bar.  Not much interest beyond that.   A few years later, we noticed that people all around the world were biking to work more instead of driving.  They were away from home sunrise to sunset and had very unique needs for their clothes.  With a lot of customer insight, we identified an innovation platform called “mobility”, from which a variety of products and services could be offered.  One successful product line was called the “Commuter”, which had that water repellent fabric as well as stretch, night reflection, anti-odor, special pockets and other features bikers craved.  So, the lesson is that sometimes ideas are ahead of their time or need to be be looked at in new ways to be useful.  

Can you see innovation trends coming?

Seeing trends coming is called “foresights”.  It’s really about pattern recognition, piecing together disparate information and stories from around the world into a cohesive narrative – and determining if those are fads or really trends, which have a longer shelf-life and more robust potential for impact.  

Can any type of company in any industry be innovative? Is there a secret sauce?

Companies are not innovative, but the people who work there are.  I believe anyone has the capacity to learn creativity and that’s a precursor to innovation.  If they are open to discovering and listening to customer and cultural/marketplace insights, and if they have courage and tenacity to explore – then yes, any company can become innovative.  

What does “work” mean to you today? How has it changed or evolved?

Work these days essentially means fulfillment.  People need to get more than a paycheck.  They are looking for companies that have a purpose to which they can relate.  Also, work environments are changing.  People are “working” more virtually, with greater flexibility and they also have fewer dress codes or norms.

How has Gap created a culture of innovation?

Gap’s previous CEO Glen Murphy was a strong advocate for systemic change and establishing a culture of innovation.   We trained 30 leaders and more than 2,000 people on the basic methods of making innovation happen.  We honored creativity in the broadest possible sense.  We stimulated people’s minds with external perspectives, foresights and insights.  So, with 2,000 people having those skills, the culture changed.  The new CEO is more focused on operational excellence rather than innovation.  So, that innovative culture does come from the top.  

What role are new tech-enabled fabrics playing in Gap’s current product line?

Gap’s performance fabrics are enabling growth in active wear.   They are also helping with sustainability, such as utilizing polyester and other fabrics that have a lower carbon footprint.  Consumers who are active crave climate and moisture control, so they can exercise in a variety of conditions.  

Will brick and mortar stores always be a key part of major clothing brands retail strategies?

Consumers will always want a physical experience.  That’s exciting and in line with the shift from “things” to “experiences”.   But, that’s not always a viable proposition in every community and smaller towns may see fewer stores in lieu of excellent digital service and experience.  

Michael will be a featured speaker at Harvest Summit on November 4, 2016.  Learn more about our agenda, see our speaker roster and request an invitation.

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