A Conversation on Corporate Innovation with Miguel Encarnação
This is part of my series on thought leaders in the innovation space. Check out the other articles here.
“My role often becomes removing barriers to innovation so that innovation can happen in the company as it exists.”
Many successful, established companies call on Miguel Encarnação when they need innovation leadership at the highest level. I think of him like an innovation superhero; but, he’d probably describe his superpower is being able to break down internal boundaries to innovation so that companies can unleash what they already have.
Miguel and I spoke over the phone about the current state of innovation and how it works inside of companies who are just getting started with their innovation program. What follows is my big takeaways and favorite ideas from of our conversation.
First, here’s a bit of Miguel’s bio: an innovation executive who’s been working in the industry for over 20 years, he specializes in digital transformation through technology and structured innovation. Through his company ibdi Consulting he provides management consulting services to the executive level of companies and organizations across industries.
He is also an adjunct professor of computer science, the editor-in-chief of the IEEE Computer Graphics and Applications magazine, and the author of two books, three patents, and numerous contributions to peer-reviewed journals and conferences as well as a Maddock-Douglas Innovation Fellow.
Reacting to a Rapid Changes
Through his consulting work, Miguel often comes in as an interim Chief Innovation Officer for companies that are looking to develop an innovation program. Recently he’s worked for organizations like the healthcare company Humana and ACT, the standardized testing company.
Because of the current startup culture, many companies are finally deciding that they need innovation capabilities — and fast. As Miguel puts in: “A lot of companies that have been very successful, and around for many years, are now frantically trying to innovate because the environment is changing. Technology is changing at a very rapid pace and they don’t have an innovation culture because they didn’t have to.”
“They see the writing on the wall and they want to quickly innovate. But they don’t really know what that means. They don’t have a clear definition of innovation and don’t have the processes or the capabilities in place.” That’s when they reach out to Miguel for help.
When he goes into a company, he approaches it from a systemic perspective, rather than looking for one-off innovation projects. For him, it’s important to talk to the CEO and make a plan for how things are going to change across the entire organization. “Innovation is not sustainable if you just do these one-offs in the room with Post-It notes on the walls…It takes more to make the company innovative.”
Innovation is Already There
To Miguel, innovation is not some magical thing that happens because of a few creative people: “Innovation is not special. Innovation is really a little bit of restructuring, reorganizing corporate processes and capabilities, and maybe adding a few new capabilities. In general, a lot of the aspects are already there.”
“Innovation is not special. Innovation is really a little bit of a restructuring, reorganizing corporate processes and capabilities, and maybe adding a few new capabilities.”
It’s not about creating something new, but uncovering what is already there. That’s where his expertise comes in: “My role often becomes removing barriers to innovation so that innovation can happen in the company as it exists. It’s more about orchestration: how to make it all work together, which ultimately leads to innovation.”
When barriers are removed, Miguel feels that it unleashes people’s natural, but often stifled, inclination to innovative ways of working: “Unfortunately, we’ve hamstrung some of people’s energy and inclination. We have to turn the clock back and unleash people’s capabilities.”
“Unfortunately, we’ve hamstrung some of people’s energy and inclination. We have to turn the clock back and unleash people’s capabilities.”
We dug a little deeper into Miguel’s perspective on the common barriers to innovation and he boiled it down to 1). Culture and 2.) Technical capabilities.
Culture is key to workplace innovation. He feels that the common traits that the human resources department typically fosters when trying to be a “Great Place to Work”, for example, are also the essential qualities needed for innovation: “What I have done in organizations in the past is work with the H.R. department, taking their Great Place to Work methodologies and then overlaying what we need for innovation.”
“It’s about creating a permission space for failure. It’s about collaboration. It’s about trust. It’s about leadership. It’s about growth.”
He described what he sees as some of the building blocks for an innovative culture: “It’s about creating a permission space for failure. It’s about collaboration. It’s about trust. It’s about leadership. It’s about growth.”
Data Analytics Literacy
Miguel and I then moved on to the technology barriers to innovation, and there are quite a few facets to what he means by technology. It starts with data. “Innovation has to do with acting on insight, creating new, unique, and surprising insights that you can design for. How do you create insights that are not just blue sky, but actionable? That has to do with being able to collect, analyze, and effectively communicate with data,” he said. “Data analytics literacy is typically a huge void in companies.”
Miguel has personally tackled this void by starting data analytics literacy campaigns in companies to help people feel comfortable with data interpretation and communicating their findings with data.
Set Up to Experiment
Another key technology capability that Miguel talked about is being set up organizationally to do quick iterations and experiments. “It’s something that is not typically done in organizations because they often have a traditional waterfall mentality that you can plan everything three years ahead of time: you cast the plan in concrete and then you execute on it.”
He spoke about the positive trend toward an integrated “DevOps” model and how it is important: “because there is this interplay between the small iterations, the experiments, rolling out, and testing.”
Avoid Innovation Fatigue
I also asked Miguel what I ask everyone: “What is your innovation silver bullet?” At first, he didn’t think there was one. “Innovation needs to be custom-tailored to any organization and its pre-existing culture and emerging business strategy.” He thought about it further: “But then, maybe this strategic approach to innovation is the silver bullet.”
Miguel isn’t interested in finding the one thing: “This whole metaphor doesn’t work for me. It’s more like throwing the net as wide as possible.” It goes back to the question — should innovation happen in a silo or more widely permeate the institution? He’s a firm believer that innovation should be a company-wide effort:“You don’t want to create innovation as this parallel universe that knows everything better and is going to make everything cooler.”
This brings us back to his belief that the ingredients for innovation are already inside an organization: “You just have integrate it differently and add a few things here and there. But it’s not as if everything you have done for the last 50 years is wrong.”
Miguel is aware of the risk of “innovation fatigue” if people get overwhelmed with too many new ideas and not knowing where to focus or go next. “If innovation becomes too hard then it will not be successful. If it becomes too time-consuming, investment-intensive, or just too hard to understand, it will not be successful. That’s why it’s so important to lay the groundwork and make it part of the existing processes rather than trying to turn the company inside out.”
The Third Hype Curve
I’ll conclude with a fascinating discussion that we had about AI. Miguel comes with a unique “historical” view of this topic as his 1997 Ph.D. thesis was about applying artificial intelligence and machine learning to intelligent user interfaces. So he’s been very close to the different waves of interest in this field and he says: “I’m experiencing what I call ‘the third hype curve.’”
He feels that there is a lot we could learn from the past hype around AI and VR: “I wish people would do their homework. Step back and think about why didn’t it work last time. What were the problems and barriers then? Try to solve those problems.”
“Step back and think about why didn’t it work last time. What were the problems and barriers then? Try to solve those problems.”
He gave the example of Google Glass. “It was a failure that I called as soon as it came out. The fundamental problem is not the technology, it’s human-human interaction. If somebody has a device on their head where you know they can tape you and call up information about you, you don’t want to talk to them anymore. That is a fundamental problem of augmented reality that we already identified in the 90s.”
“That’s why those technologies became successful in applications where it was not about human-human, but it was about remote maintenance or the military. Virtual reality again got better, but unless you really have all the whole sensory system of the human involved, it will also hit a ceiling again.”
With that, I’ll leave you to ponder all of the things that we learned about technology just 30 short years ago that we’ve already forgotten.
If you want to read more articles with perspectives from innovation experts, check out my Innovation Series.