The Changing Back End of Innovation: Notes from the 2015 BEI Conference

The 2015 Back End of Innovation (BEI) conference recently took place in San Jose, California, with 150+ leaders from a wide range of organizations. It was a busy few days, but as expected, there were robust conversations and some exceptional presentations.

This article outlines several of the key themes that came through from a range of presentations and conversations that I attended at the event. Note that it is from a personal perspective and that not all sessions were attended.

From process to people…

Traditionally BEI has focused on the process of developing innovative thoughts into products, services and solutions. You know the deal, stage gates, review committees, funding allocations, etc. Perhaps the most striking development at this year’s event was the shift in presentations and discussions towards people oriented issues. Engaging employees around innovative thinking, effective communications, and addressing broader cultural change were central to many of the engaging sessions at the event.

With a focus on passion…

Presenters consistently referenced the need to focus efforts on those employees who demonstrate the most passion around innovative thinking. Mohan Nair (Cambia Health Solutions) quoted Gandhi around finding passion, with Stuart Jenkins (Deckers Outdoor) echoing a similar need for innovation practitioners. Passion is obviously a broad topic, and many varying approaches and perspectives were offered, but this focus was often presented in the context of small innovation teams scaling impact across complex organizations in an efficient and effective manner. Everyone has been talking about the need for passion for years, but this year a range of presenters demonstrated a range of concrete actions to identify, engage and drive value from these individuals. To me, this new focus signified a maturing of approaches and actionable plans by the largely corporate audience.

…To build a culture of innovation

Consistent with the Front End of Innovation and Intrapreneur Summit events, there was a strong and consistent focus on cultural issues associated with innovation efforts. The difference here was that culture was positioned as an opportunity to drive the implementation of ideas, and achieving results valued by leaders. Jay Morgan (Bayer Consumer Care) and Michael Wynblatt (Ingersoll Rand) both highlighted actions, such as innovation training and ongoing engagement, that directly related to enhancing innovative cultures, but with a focus on the process of developing ideas.

Addressing realistic time

Too often at these events innovation programs are  positioned as smooth, calm endeavors, that can come across as quick, easy and without incident. What was apparent in many of the sessions at BEI was the frankness in people talking about the extended timelines needed to make these efforts work. It became apparent that aggressive timelines may have been set with leadership, but that results often took far longer than anticipated to achieve. Speakers often talked to the challenges they encountered in managing these extended timelines. The frankness was refreshing.

Focus on metrics

Given that this was BEI, there was a consistent focus on setting and achieving metrics, however this year there was a marked focus around metrics that are valued by business leaders. This is a welcome development, as too often “results” (often activity) that clearly don’t align with the needs of Business Units and their leaders are presented as successes. In a range of sessions, including Neal Gutterson (DuPoint Pioneer) and Denise Fletcher (Xerox), a focus on commercializing innovation and driving exceptional metrics were highlighted.

The drive towards transparency

For years people have been coming to these conferences and talking about the need for story telling, connection and conversation, etc,. What was demonstrated at this event was a more determined and results oriented approach to create transparency, motivation and recognition through effective communication efforts. Presenters, such as Porter Gale (Virgin America) and Deborah Piscione (Author of “Secrets of Silicon Valley”) pointed to the value driven by sophisticated, well structured communication plans associated with innovation efforts.

Incubators to disrupt

A number of presenters, often from conservative organizations, talked about their use of incubators as a way to drive the development of disruptive innovative thinking. While this is not a new topic, it was noteworthy in that these organizations would not typically be considered ‘cutting edge’. The broader lesson may be that incubators / accelerators are now fully baked into the innovation competency model, across pretty much all industry verticals, and at all levels of organization sophistication. They may not be right for every company, but they are now accessible to pretty much any organization.

Innovation from the not-for-profit sector

A surprising twist on this year’s event were a number of not-for-profit organizations referencing successful and sophisticated innovation programs. It was interesting that they appeared to talk down the successes generated, but in reality they seem to have made exceptional progress, often in very risk averse and politically charged environments. Stand outs from these sessions included Barbara Solomon and Kari Stillman (ACT Inc.) and Marla Hetzel (AARP Services) with Jennifer Draklellis (United Healthcare).

BEI had a major shift this year and really demonstrated a lot of value in thought and a determined demonstration of how to achieve results. There was a solid base of senior level attendees and plenty of opportunity to mingle and informally build relationships. Great work from the event organizers.

By Anthony Ferrier

About the Author

Anthony is the CEO of Culturevate, an organization that empowers a company’s employees to execute ideas and inspire a culture of innovation, through employee networks, a resource portal and training programs (developed in association with Professor Chris Labash from Carnegie Mellon University). Anthony is a widely read author, speaker and advisor to industry leaders at organizations such as Pfizer, U.S. Postal Service, Johnson & Johnson, ADP and Fidelity. He previously led the BNY Mellon innovation program and has a Masters of Commerce (University of Sydney) and Bachelor of Economics (University of Newcastle).