Themes and Trends from The Front End of Innovation Conference (Boston, 2016); And What They Mean for Your Business

I love a good quality innovation conference. There are plenty of crappy innovation events out there, but I have to say that this year’s Front End of Innovation conference in Boston (#FEI16, @FEI_innovation), provided a boat load of inspiration and occasional moments of delight. So I wanted to outline some of the key themes that I saw coming out of this year’s event.

A Renewed Focus on Stakeholders and Influencers

In year’s past I always got the sense that innovation leaders and presenters at these conferences pushed the concept that their efforts took place within a weird, corporate vacuum. They owned innovation and no one else could touch it. In fact, a few years back at FEI, one of the presenters boldly stated that innovation leaders should avoid engaging with HR, as they will screw everything up. This year the tide turned, with many of the speakers referencing the need to identify, message for and engage with corporate stakeholders as part of an effective innovation program. Vince Voron (Dolby) gave an excellent keynote, talking about how he engaged stakeholders throughout his (varied and far too exciting) career. Another keynote, Jonah Berger talked to the importance of utilizing stakeholders as advocates, but from more of an academic perspective. A nice balance. I wrote about this topic a while back here.

The Importance of Effective Communication

Perhaps aligned with the earlier theme, there was a lot of focus at this year’s event on how to effectively communicate with a range of audiences. This was often positioned within the context of leveraging impact, motivating employees, driving results and building a culture of innovation (see below). It was great to see the various ways that presenters articulated their approach to communicating, often presented from a more sophisticated perspective than in the past. Dan Heath (co-author of “Made to Stick”) referenced this in terms of individuals processing messages through an emotional lens. BTW, I recently wrote an article on this very topic here.

Continued Focus on Culture Change

For the first time ever, FEI this year hosted a full breakout stream on innovation culture. This reflects the importance innovation leaders now place on acknowledging and responding to cultural issues. Three-years ago this was not really high on innovation leader’s agenda, but is now an embedded part of many program efforts. Some of the key messages coming from speakers included the importance of employee innovation training (Mike Hatrick, Volvo Group Trucks) and selectively choosing from a range of innovation methodologies to support define and support a culture appropriate to your business (Cristin Moran, 3M). Intrapreneurs were once again a key focus of many presentations, including from John Klick (Pfizer). I have written about this a lot, and you can see some of my articles here.

Simplification, Often in the Context of a Mission

We live in complex times, and within the innovation world it is easy to get caught up in the minutia of managing an effective program. This is especially the case when looking to build an innovative corporate culture. Democratization of innovation encourages complexity. Time and again speakers such as Dan Heath and Donald Sull (Author “Simple Rules: How to Thrive in a Complex Economy”) talked to the need of simplifying actions, messages and underlying processes in order to build an effective innovation effort. Presenters consistently boiled down the message of simplification to defining a key mission statement, as a way to provide alignment with a directional goal. The mission statement could relate to a company, innovation program or even just an idea. This concept was referenced in a wide range of presentations, most prominently by Vijay Govindarajan who referenced the need for corporate strategy (and mission statements) to effectively support and align with innovation goals. 

It’s Not All Rainbows and Unicorns

As I said at the beginning of this article, I love a good conference. But the lack of recognition by presenters of the difficulties experienced by innovation professionals can drive me crazy. Sure, you generated some great successes, let’s look at them, but let’s also talk about what didn’t work. Why didn’t that work, what could be done differently by others? These kinds of discussions are not always comfortable, but are oh so necessary. At FEI it was refreshing to see a number of presenters openly discussing the challenges they faced. Soon Yu (VF Corporation) talked a lot of his failures, as did several presenters in the break-out sessions. We are all in this together, let’s be honest with the challenges that we all face.

Odd and Disjointed Metaphors

It appears that innovation professionals still see the need to illustrate a point, any point, with a series of odd, “kooky” and confusing metaphors. I don’t know where this comes from, but this year it was stronger than ever. Scorpions, home blenders, 1% milk, origami, rocket ships, flocks of geese, pornography, piles of gloves, drug dealers, etc. We get it, you are cool innovator and are aware of what is on the edge of corporate consciousness. However, these disjointed, frankly odd metaphors, often come across as lazy pandering that undermines the true message of a presentation.


So another great year for this event, and lots of great connections made. Looking forward to seeing how these trends and themes play out in the real world in the year ahead. See you at FEI 2017!

By Anthony Ferrier

About the Author

Anthony is a well-regarded thought leader around corporate innovation issues, with a specific focus on engaging employees to drive business impact. He is the COO of ExOxo, working with Yuri van Geest and partners to help organizations thrive in an exponential world. He is also the CEO of Culturevate, working with some of the world’s leading universities to train employees on innovation skills and inspire innovative cultures. Anthony is a widely read author, speaker and advisor to organizations such as Bristol-Myers Squibb, Fidelity Investments, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, ADP and USAA. He previously led The BNY Mellon innovation program and has a Master of Commerce (University of Sydney) and Bachelor of Economics (University of Newcastle).

Image: Corporate Cityscape Seminar Conference from