‘There is a diffused fatigue for innovation’

21 Jun 2017

Roberto Verganti. Image: IRDG

For Leaders’ Insights, Prof Roberto Verganti discusses the importance of meaningful innovation and prioritising quality over quantity.

Roberto Verganti is professor of leadership and innovation at Politecnico di Milano, Italy.

An award-winning author, his titles include: Overcrowded: Designing Meaningful Products in a World Awash with Ideas, a book that provides processes and methods to create breakthrough visions; and Design-Driven Innovation: Changing the Rules of Competition by Radically Innovating What Things Mean, which was selected by BusinessWeek as one of the best innovation books of 2009.

More than 150 of Verganti’s articles have been published in the likes of Harvard Business Review, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and Financial Times.

Describe your role and what you do.

Academic leader: Professor of leadership and innovation at the School of Management of Politecnico di Milano, where I direct the laboratory on leadership, design and innovation (LEADIN lab). With an engineering background, my research lies at the intersection between leadership, design and technology management. The main focus is how leaders and organisations create innovations that people love, how to generate radically new visions and how to make those visions a reality.

Future Human

Consultant: Applying the findings of the research, my team and I help companies with their design innovations to build design capabilities and help with design processes. With my team of like-minded researchers and consultants, we have served as adviser to executives and senior managers at a wide variety of manufacturing and service firms, including: Ferrari, Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Gucci, Samsung, Microsoft, IBM, Vodafone, Nestlé, L’Oréal and Deloitte.

At a policy level, I serve on the European Design Leadership Board of the European Commission. I also work with national and regional governments around the world to conceive design and innovation policies.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

By trying to be proactive. I set a few long-term projects that I want to build for future growth and create something meaningful for people. I then catalyse interest around them. Being reactive is a nightmare and leads nowhere.

What are the biggest challenges facing your business and how are you tackling them?

Two challenges:

  • The disruption of digital technologies in the world of education and research. I’m addressing this by enlarging the competences in my team: hiring designers to work in a team in a business school. That’s not usual.
  • The amount of requests for cooperation with industry. We have a pioneer methodology that help organisations to create breakthrough, meaningful innovation. This is the innovation of meaning – innovations that appeal to the emotional and psychological reasons for buying or using a product or service instead of its performance features. We have a growing number of requests from organisations that ask to be supported in their journey. I’m addressing this challenge by enlarging the team and building a partnership with consultants who want to join us in our path. We are developing a digital app that will enable other to practise our process and facilitate the work of organisations.
What are the key industry opportunities you’re capitalising on?

How to use design to better capture the values of new technologies. There is an appetite amongst companies for insights and help to achieve this. I was delighted to be asked by IRDG to come to Ireland and that’s why I am presenting at the Design Thinking Ireland 2017 conference.

The conference will also feature local Irish leaders who are already using design-driven innovation as a competitive differentiator, embedding design thinking in their business strategies and innovation culture. They are moving from the innovation of solutions to the innovation of meaning. Whether you are new to the topic or already focused on it, there’s something for everyone at the conference and I’m looking forward to meeting and engaging with Irish companies over the two days.

What set you on the road to where you are in the technology industry?

An interest in creating innovation that is meaningful – not just something better, but something that people love. The ultimate way to create loyalty to your product or service is to create products and services that people love – that makes the life of people more meaningful. Most innovation is great for business, it improves things, but is also creating a world that is complicated, confused. There is a diffused fatigue for innovation. I’m striving to bring the innovation world in the dimension of quality, not quantity.

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

At the beginning of my academic career, I was giving a speech at a conference and was eager to impress the audience. So I went on stage, showed my sophisticated models, slides, equations … at the end, there was no question from the audience. A terrifying silence. I went back to my seat and asked a friend, “How was it?” He was the most brilliant person I knew, yet he said: “Perhaps what you said is cool. But I understood nothing.” At that point, I learned that helping people to understand, to grow, is much more important than showing how good you are. You are good if people grow.

How do you get the best out of your team?

By being one of them.

STEM sectors receive a lot of criticism for a lack of diversity. What are your thoughts on this and what’s needed to effect change?

Indeed. Perhaps because we teach it in a very traditional and rational way. Make it more project-based, more human, and there will be more diversity.

Who is your business hero and why?

Steve Jobs and Alberto Alessi, because they understand that making business is first and foremost about making great products. Profit is just a consequence of making products that are meaningful to people. Unfortunately, in business school, we send the opposite message: the objective is to create profit, and the means to get there is to make good products.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E Frankl.

On Looking by Alexandra Horowitz.

Collaborative Circles by Michael P Farrell.

And, of course, my latest book, Overcrowded.

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

My resources are my colleagues, my family, my loved ones. And, of course, my students. If they are happy, I’m happy.

Roberto Verganti will deliver a keynote speech at the Design Thinking Ireland 2017 conference on Thursday, 22 June at The Helix, Dublin.

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