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5 Takeaways from Innovation Expert Blade Kotelly (Tufts)

We recently sat down with Innovation Expert, Senior Lecturer at MIT, and alumnus Blade Kotelly (Tufts) to discuss his Sigma Nu experience, how he got started in innovation and user-experience work, and what’s the secret sauce to innovation. While a larger piece is in the works, we wanted to share five quick takeaways from our interview. Brother Kotelly will be leading a webinar in August on innovation so be on the lookout for updates and registration info.

Technology must be sensitive to culture.

“If you’re not sensitive to what’s happening culturally, you don’t make great systems.”

Blade shared a wonderful story to illuminate this point. For many years of pre-recorded touchtone phone systems, the ones where you navigate a menu by pressing numbers on your phone, a frequent introduction would greet callers: Please listen carefully because the options may have changed. Blade points out that this greeting was widespread as an industry practice but stuck around for 8 years. Why was that a problem? Because culture was changing.

“My systems treated people as if they were smart and nice, because culture was getting more used to these systems.”

Blade points out that technology solutions can’t be stagnant and must evolve with the culture they’re serving. As customers become more comfortable with technology, much of the initial explanatory safeguards are no longer needed. Another good example of this? Microsoft Word’s helpful animated paperclip.

You must recognize and then challenge the underlying assumptions.

Blade again explains this great concept with an example: a camera. Pre-2000, cameras were large, expensive, and very technical machines handled only by professionals. They required photographers to look through a viewfinder and then ensure they had the right focus with large lenses before taking a picture.

“There’s a lot of assumptions built into that camera. There’s an assumption that you have to look at what you want to get a good picture. There’s an assumption that if you want to take a good picture you have to have a big camera. There’s an assumption that you have to focus on what you want before you take the picture. So, companies that are brilliant challenge those assumptions. Let’s just capture all the light rays and you can focus later.”

Blade is also quick to point out that challenging assumptions and asking “Why” does not always lead to a solution, and that’s okay. It’s about building a habit of training yourself to think differently about things around you and new solutions will unveil themselves.

Innovation doesn’t have to be about big things. It can be about very small things.

“A lot of people go along with what’s been happening and accept the status quo as good enough.”

The big innovations of today are obvious. The electric car, the iPhone, or even the internet. But Blade reminds us that innovation can be as simple as asking yourself why you wear certain clothes or why you take a certain route to your work every day. Some of those questions likely have answers that you already know. You wear a suit because that’s the dress code or you take a certain surface road because it’s a faster commute. But sometimes those answers lead to new questions and sometimes those questions require you to think differently. Again, it’s about building a habit and daily practice.

Invention is creating something new. Innovation is driving the value from it.

“If you have the right leadership characteristics with inventiveness, that’s when you become innovative. If you’re just inventive you may see the future, but it will be hard to get people to follow you there.”

Innovation is not about coming up with the next big idea. To put it in a different way, being inventive is jump ahead and everyone else while being innovative is bringing everyone else with you as you jump ahead.

He’s most excited about Tesla.

“Porsche makes an electric two-seater that goes 0 to 60 in 2.6 seconds. The Cyber Truck for 50% less will go 0 to 60 in 2.9 seconds and tow boats behind it. That’s incredible.”

When asked what’s the next big innovation that we’re now seeing glimpses of, Blade is quick to highlight Tesla, both from a manufacturing standpoint and technological. He specifically points out self-driving technology. If motorways are populated exclusively by vehicles running on self-drive technology (and communicating with each other no less) then suddenly everything from speed limits to daily habits change. Do you need a garage to store your vehicle if it can drop you off and park itself somewhere else, waiting to be called back? Do commute times change once a network of vehicles, no longer encumbered by human error, make better decisions as a whole?

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