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Summer of Innovation

November 29, 2011

“Summer” is a bit of an odd concept when you live 85 miles north of the Equator, and the weather seems to be pretty stable throughout the year. Yet, three sets of experiences over the past few months provided the kind of stimulation that led to at-the-beach-like reflections — and point to ways to accelerate the generation of breakthrough insights.

The first experience involved extensive field visits to India and China as part of work with a multinational company looking to boost growth in those markets. Our team collectively spent about 100 days across the two markets, visiting urban areas, rural areas, homes, retail locations, hospitals, and more.

The two markets are often lumped together because they both have massive populations and are reasonably geographically proximate. But the striking thing about them is how very different they are. India and China are fascinating, diverse, and distinct. You can get only a smidge of understanding about what makes each country tick from reading about them. (Tarun Khanna in particular has written some useful books on the topic.) But nothing replicates actually being on the ground. If these countries are important for your company’s future, commit to spending at least two weeks in each market over the next year. Make sure to get out of the six-star hotels to actually experience real life. The investment of time will pay big dividends.

The second experience involved a high number of idiosyncratic speech requests. One group wanted me to detail the essential habits of disruptive innovators (where I happily leveraged the great work on the innovator’s DNA by Jeffrey Dyer, Hal Gregersen, and Clayton Christensen). Another wanted to discuss how to identify transformational trends (which allowed me to dust off Seeing What’s Next). A third wanted to “expand the minds of its regional leadership team.” And so on.

Experimenting with new material always helps to spur new insights. For me, the big connection came in crystallizing a thought that has been bouncing around my mind for a while. I’ve written a few times about how the increasing accessibility and affordability of innovation could paradoxically give increased advantage to scale. I leave the summer with increased conviction that forward-thinking corporations have a chance to become the “innovation heroes” of the next generation. The reason is a unique intersection of “supply” (increased knowledge about innovation and low-cost innovation enablers) and “demand” (need to innovate given increasing competition and accelerating pace of technological change).

Third, I had the privilege of serving as a reviewer for a handful of innovation contests and grant proposals. All told I reviewed close to 300 different submissions (with another 10 on the docket this month). There is a mind-blowing innovation energy around the globe. Compare this to gyrating stock markets and gloomy economic prospects in the United States and some European markets. It made me wonder whether the long-held view that growth is required to boost living standards isn’t outdated. Even if economic growth stagnates for decades, I am utterly convinced that my children will enjoy far better living standards than I do because innovators will have changed the world, more than once.

If you’re looking for fresh insights — rather than just an account of how I spent my summer — take a look at the things that led to my ah-ha moments (a contrast, a change to the status quo, and a non-obvious connection). While interesting ideas appear to come out of thin air, intentionally seeking this kind of stimulation can boost your chances of generating breakthroughs.

One more important thing happened this summer: my wife gave birth to our third child in late August (Harry James Anthony). Our other children were born in November and December, so I can say without hesitation that this was the best summer of my life.

Scott AnthonyScott Anthony

Scott leads Innosight’s Asian operations. His fourth book on innovation, The Little Black Book of Innovation, will be released in early 2012. Follow him on Twitter at @ScottDAnthony.

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