How is innovation changing at ACT?

We talk to L. Miguel Encarnação, Chief Innovation Officer, ACT


A cross-industry innovation leader for nearly two decades, serial entrepreneur and recognized research scientist in emerging technologies, Dr. L. Miguel Encarnação is leading ACT’s transformation into becoming an innovation force in the K-through-career assessment and EdTech industries. Prior to joining ACT in 2011, Miguel led emerging technology innovation in healthcare at Fortune 100 Humana Inc., founded and directed a non-profit vocational school of higher education, and led advanced applied technology R&D and international for-profit spin-off activities at the Fraunhofer Society. He is an adjunct professor of computer science, the editor-in-chief of the IEEE Computer Graphics and Applications magazine, and the author of numerous contributions to peer-reviewed journals and conferences. Miguel will be sharing his wealth of knowledge and experience at the Chief Innovation Officer Summit in San Francisco this May 18-19. 

What do you think are the main qualities of a successful innovation strategy?

Capability: There are certain prerequisites to innovation, which - if absent - first require significant investment of time and money with no immediate ROI. Those include

- Culture of experimentation and co-creation

- Insight creation, data analytics and data-driven decision-making

- User-centered design

- Rapid prototyping

- Systematic ideation

- Creative business model development

As well as such mundane and taken-for-granted but critical capabilities as:

- Innovation-aware strategy development

- Strategic vendor management

- Agile resource management

- Long-term cost-accounting

- Agile and lean product engineering

- IP management

Capacity: To innovate, staff members need two things which typically don't broadly exist in traditional organizations:

1. Ability to understand, embrace, and apply aforementioned capabilities and competencies to daily work.

2. Time to participate in out-of-function or cross-functional innovation activities to increase the diversity of perspective to those efforts.

Acquiring 1. and executing on 2. requires free capacity which often is not (made) available in the absence of short-term ROI perspective. The alternative is to create dedicated innovation groups which exclusively focus on innovation efforts. The challenges here are:

- Significant investment needs

- Resistance by the main business due to the lack of integration (see later) (leading to painful death in the "danger zone"-- the stage and time between initial concept completion and the ability and willingness of the business to operationalize/commercialize it through significant investments)

- Lack of business acumen in driven innovation and thus potentially less business value generation, as well as

- Lack of customer-experience inspired diversity of thinking due to the isolation of the "corporate innovators"

- To demonstrate immediate business value by applying innovation methodologies to incremental improvement needs, thus also creating evolutionary understanding and acceptance of innovation principles throughout the company

- To accelerate the operationalization/commercialization of innovation concepts by benefiting from and iteratively adjusting corporate processes rather than creating conflict and risk neuroses

- To invoke continuous knowledge transfer between internally focused and externally focused business units and their improvement and innovation efforts

- To infuse the corporate culture with innovation language, behaviors and values, rather than creating a parallel culture of innovation to compete with history and traditions

- To position innovation skills and competencies as role-expectations throughout established talent and leadership development programs so that they become accepted, trainable, trackable, rewardable, in short: non-optional

Integration: The only prudent way to address above capability and capacity issues seems to be tight integration of innovation with corporate business processes and functions

Conversely, a lack of integration leads to delay in innovation execution no matter how "rapid" the initial concept development process progress, the starvation of innovation in the "danger zone", the de- or re-scoping of innovation concepts into more familiar yet less value-generating mutant concepts, the consequential missing of windows of opportunity, and ultimately the questioning of the viability of innovation in general.

What do you see as the biggest challenges facing large organizations in 2016?

The shelf-life of innovation momentum: It often starts as an executive call to action but with the rapid changes in every company -- and corresponding executive turn-overs -- it doesn't get sufficient time to get properly developed, integrated with the overall corporate culture and processes, and given the luxury of demonstrating success possibly only in the long run. Often innovation efforts don't survive, therefore, aforementioned "danger zone" .

The speed of technology-driven change: It creates immense acceleration of customer expectations -- often fueled by hype rather than true need, however, making it challenging for businesses focused on meeting customer expectations to adjust to technological change fast enough while applying appropriate due diligence in the process. The results are technology-focused, half-baked value propositions that don't integrate well back with the core business and its core capabilities, nor do they truly address customer need, consequently leading to even shorter shelf-life of "innovations".

Do you think it’s important for a large organization to maintain/encourage startup culture?

Like any other guiding framework, “ startup culture” has to be well defined to be executable and measurable. Many startups benefit from organizational characteristics that don’t apply to large organizations such as seemingly unconstrained risk taking and limitless pivoting. Other characteristics are very much attainable but need to be tailored to the corporate environment, history and culture, such as identity, growth strategies, agility, and relationship focus. Developing and changing culture is a design challenge and should be treated as such.

What can delegates expect from your upcoming presentation at the Chief Innovation Officer Summit

I hope to convey a practical — possibly eye-opening — approach to developing corporate culture towards innovation readiness that demystifies innovation, reduces internal resistance, and allows for any team member to identify their role in the corporate processes aimed at ensuring corporate success through continuous improvement, possibly also leading to true innovations.

You can hear more from Miguel along with other leading senior innovation executives at the Chief Innovation Officer Summit, taking place in San Francisco this May 18-19.

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