I had an interesting conversation on innovation with John Viera, global director of sustainability and vehicle environmental matters for Ford. Viera was in town speaking at the GLOBE 2012 Conference.
The company has long embraced sustainability in its operations, consistently innovating greater and greater efficiencies -- the sort of initiatives Viera describes as 'blocking and tackling'.
These incremental innovations have helped the car giant remain competitive. But Viera recognizes these solutions will not secure the future.
"We want to be able to pilot far-reaching programs today, even though the economic model for them doesn't yet exist" Viera said. "By doing so, when economic conditions line up in the future, we'll be ready."
Viera illustrates with the example of Ford's Wayne, Michigan plant. The plant, which produces a variety of vehicles on the Focus platform (including a plug-in hybrid model), has the largest solar array in Michigan, and an impressive battery storage capacity to match.
At present, energy costs didn't warrant the investment in solar. But Ford believed it was important to understand and work with the technology. So they got creative.
That creativity was expressed in partnership deals with Detroit Edison and the Michigan government, each of which made sizable investments in this pilot project.
The win for the utility and government was two-fold: first, it was a test case; and second, it came with bragging rights.
Ford, meanwhile, got the technology they wanted to 'fast forward the future', at an investment cost that made sense.
Innovation Where You Least Expect It
I certainly didn't expect to be speaking to Viera about finance innovation. But as he pointed out, enabling an exciting future often means finding innovative solutions in the more mundane present.
As a mentor of mine once said, there are a million reasons to kill a visionary idea with righteous might. And most of those reasons have to do with obstacles in the present.
At these junctures, the way to push forward is by solving the more mundane problems in a smart way, breaking down the reasons for resistance with them.
Unless this happens, the future stagnates. Or, even worse, another innovator comes from the outside -- with no knowledge of the 'million reasons for resistance' -- and beats us to the future. Just look at Mark Zuckerberg.
Lessons For Innovators
1. Radical innovation doesn't just happen. It needs to be incubated. Before killing a big idea, consider if more mundane innovations would enable you to bring the big one to life more readily.
2. Find champions. In the case of Ford, partnering with a utility and government created a financial solution that enabled the big idea to happen.
3. Sometimes the mundane innovations aren't apparent. If you can't see how to move forward, bring in someone who is 'outside your jar.' Often, outsiders can see a path forward where more expert insiders are blinded by experience.