THE TIME TO INNOVATE IS NOW

My lifelong dream was to be a classic car mechanic, still hope I can make that happen someday. However, I grew up in a country where what you do professionally is limited by your social and economic status. This meant being a mechanic wasn’t up to my middle class parents’ idea of a career path.

So when I started my engineering degree, I enrolled (and payed for) myself into a technical school which had a weekend program. This program was meant for working people, who through great sacrifice and expense hoped to advance their job situation through this experience and education. My own situation, as a “rich kid”, who only studied at a fancy university during the week, was slightly different. It was a bit hard to fit in at first and due to a variety of reasons I had to interrupt my studies repeatedly. In the end it took me 4 rather than 2 years to finish, but I enjoyed it more than any engineering class I ever took and probably learned more about real “innovation” than I did through my PhD.

A common joke among my classmates, many of which had worked in the USA (illegally of course) was: ‘What does an American mechanic do when X is broken? He orders a new part! What does a Mexican mechanic do when X is broken? He finds a coke bottle, duct tape, string and whatever else he can find in his junk pile and FIXES things’. These guys grew up and lived in situations where you have to make ends meet day by day, and you have to be extremely creative to do so. That is just everyday life. Creativity is a matter of survival, not post-it notes.

In the field of innovation, we often say that true opportunity for change or experimentation only happens when the ship is sinking or the platform is burning. I meet frustrated innovation managers regularly, who will often say: ‘It is hard to get people to want to change or try, we are simply doing too well, the business is going great and innovation is someone’s pet project just to tick the box’. Back in Mexico, when I try to explain to people what I do here in Switzerland, they also have a hard time understanding why anyone would spend money on trying to find solutions for something that is doing well. Creativity or lack of it, is not a matter of human nature it is simply a reaction to context. We have lived in a very safe, comfortable and steady environment… until now.

Innovation managers, this is your time to shine. Let’s face it, we are still extremely lucky and safe, but are in a situation where most people are wondering what to do now. Top managers are trying to address challenges, where you no longer have to convince them that business as usual isn’t the solution… because it clearly isn’t. The joke about which C managed to push through “Digital Transformation” is partly true, but someone had to be there to propose what digital tool to use. This is your opportunity to look through your own pile of junk, get some duct tape and start experimenting. The need for innovation has never been so clear, the cost of failure has never been so low, and the potential impact of success never so high. If not now, then when?

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Alan Cabello
Senior Partner
Alan holds a PhD from EPFL focused on human-centered innovation processes, having been a Visiting Researcher at Stanford’s d.school and a participant at Potsdam HPI’s d.school. He also holds a M.Sc. in Management and a Dip.Eng. in Mechatronics. He is a co-founder of Spark Works, leads innovation efforts at Allianz, sits on the board of a couple of start-ups and lectures at ETHZ.