Deploying Innovation Through Reinterpretation, Reinvention, And Reimagination

Industry insight: Zachary Hill, Chief Innovation Officer at The Future Project


Ahead of his presentation at the Chief Innovation Officer Summit in New York this December 5-6, we spoke to Zachary Hill, Chief Innovation Officer at The Future Project.

As Chief Innovation Officer leading one of the largest education R&D teams in the country, I'm ultimately accountable for The Future Project's capacity and ability to create value for young people, both now and in the future. Primarily, I'm responsible for designing exceptional products and services that inspire and empower young people to live extraordinary lives. Secondly, I'm accountable for ensuring that those products and services can be translated into value.

How did you get started in your career?

I started my first major business in fifth grade, and have straddled several different industries since then (usually at least two or three at a time). I've been fortunate to arrive at my positions by following my passions and seeing how I could monetize them while improving people's lives in the process. I like to ask myself: 'What is an experience I value that I wish it was easier to have?' The solution to that problem is often a business in the making, with, of course, plenty of bumps along the way. This approach has taken me from entrepreneurship to journalism, to literature, to game design, to academia, to finance, to policy analysis, to nonprofit management - with a couple of different tech ventures on the side, and I have no intention of slowing down anytime soon!

How would you describe a successful innovation strategy?

I'd say the most important quality of a successful innovation strategy is, first and foremost, that it actually exists. It's tempting to get far too fancy in this regard, and what happens is that you wind up 80% of the way towards nowhere by architecting an overly-complex process with too many moving parts. But generally speaking, I think innovation rests at three different levels: the reinterpretation, reinvention, and reimagination, where each of them works in a slightly different way. Reinterpretation simply means you're trying to find a new angle on a traditional problem - it's largely a quality improvement process, and for this to thrive, you need a culture and accountability system that rewards results-driven small bets. Reinvention means you're looking for a whole new approach, whether it's via a system internally or a solution externally. The key here is a strategy-driven design process, involving an in-depth engagement with the stakeholders. Finally, reimagination is the act of reframing a problem as an opportunity wholesale. For this, you have got to create a deliberate space where assumptions can be totally cast aside, and you have to amass a deep enough understanding of the system you're talking about, so you can present a new way of seeing the world organically. Each of these processes works a little differently, and each of them demands a different kind of finesse. I don't think there's one magical way to do things.

What are the main challenges companies face when they deliver innovation?

The most common challenge, I'd say, is institutional inertia juxtaposed against an improperly designed accountability system. Basically, what happens is that an executive comes in and decides to host an innovation initiative, and maybe that executive even garners a fair amount of interest. But two, three, or four decades of institutional design create incentives that run wholly counter to the conditions that actually reward innovation: short-term growth, risk-and-failure aversion, overly siloed teams, distance from the customer and customer experience and other. Innovation can't be an initiative, it has to be a full-stack approach.

How important is it to collaborate with the startup community? How can corporates and startups benefit from each other in terms of innovation?

I'm certainly biased as not just a startup executive, but a nonprofit startup executive, to say 'yes it's important,' and I'll acknowledge that. But I think it's a myth that startups are innovative and big companies are ponderous, and so by looking at startups you can learn how to innovate (or, conversely, that major companies have nothing to offer to startups). The truth is that both exist within climates and incentive structures that reward different kinds of behavior, and you can't just pick up a practice here or a concept there, plug it in and expect to see results.

Talking from my experience with startups - they have great product-driven reinterpretation-innovation, but atrocious process innovation, and often, venture cycles create habits of metric-chasing rather than allowing startups to step back, take a deep breath, and assess what's really going on. By contrast, many corporations are far too reluctant to tear the whole ship down. In some cases, in fact, it wouldn't even be possible to do so. The way we can help one another is to take an honest look at the problems each of us is trying to solve and ask ourselves - 'Are those really the right problems?' If the answer is yes, we find the overlap between what we're both trying to do, and understand what resources and accountabilities are causing us to frame the issue the way we're choosing to frame it. It's far more than taking a given technique or trendy approach, and saying, 'see, we're innovating!', this allows both sides to examine whether they actually understand what is really true, what properties and principles are really shaping the environment, and synchronize accordingly.

What will you be discussing in your presentation at the Chief Innovation Officer Summit?

As one of the very few nonprofit representatives at the Summit, I'm going to be talking about successful innovation practices within the nonprofit sector, social impact spaces, and how they might be applied outside the traditional confines of the sector. I'll also throw in some lessons I learned as a former lead game designer of the popular card game Magic: The Gathering - specifically, about how to instill new life into a brand in need of reimagination!

You can hear from Zachary and other industry leaders at the Chief Innovation Officer Summit, taking place in New York this December 5-6.

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