Zolli2 Think of innovation and you're likely to conjure up images of corporate rock stars, must-have gadgets or soon-to-be-cliche thought-leadership tracts. Rock the boat with something new and exciting — that's innovation, right?

Wrong.

Real innovation, says Andrew Zolli, is less about producing something new and more about anticipating what's going to be new — and we all can do that.

Zolli — a futurist, CEO of the annual and influential Pop!Tech Conference and a National Geographic Society fellow — delivered the keynote address at the 2010 DigitalNow conference in Orlando with a message: Anyone can innovate.

He backed up that notion with a pair of definitions:

  • “Innovation,” he said, is “the creation of new forms of value in anticipation of future demand.”
  • And “great leaders?” Zolli said they're the ones who systematically scan the horizon for “weak signals” of disruptive forces. Detecting those signals early and acting on them is key, he said.

After his keynote, I cornered Zolli and asked him to elaborate.

“Our normal metaphors about innovation are all about breakthroughs, change, things that are different, a radical reframing of an industry,” he said. “The reality is that most innovative work is incremental improvement. It's about staying ahead of trends as opposed to reacting to trends.

“The challenge,” he said, “is that once you fall behind those trends, a bunker mentality can set in. At that point, you encounter an issue that I call 'cognitive similarity' — people thinking the same way and making that bunker mentality worse.

“We need to begin to adapt to a world in which we engage the very top of the organization in a conversation about embracing a different kind of risk portfolio. That means having an established set of processes in place in which you have no expectation of return. You understand that you make investments not just for operational excellence, but for learning and adaptation. Those things are inherently uncertain, but if you begin to do them at a small or medium scale, they can yield tremendous benefits. The cultural changes they engender are really significant.”

I see a lot of social media strategy in that response. For those focused on traditional ROI metrics, the immediate return on that investment might not be clear, but we understand that we have to make the investment nonetheless. Why? In anticipation of future returns. Our future students / members / employees / clients are collaborating via social media. What's the cost if we don't join them?

It goes beyond mere social media, though. Zolli's underlying message is this: If you want to stay ahead, you have to look ahead.

It's not rocket science. Under Zolli's model, some of the most storied, tradition-steeped organizations can be classified as hugely innovative.

Is yours one of them?

Think about it, then check out video and slidedecks from this year's DigitalNow presentations, courtesy of Fusion Productions.

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