A world leader in 3D design, engineering, and entertainment software and services, Autodesk impressively outdid themselves (once again) at their annual Autodesk University conference this year in Las Vegas. Keynote speaker, Jeff Kowalski, Chief Technology Officer and Senior Vice President at Autodesk, encouraged, empowered, and inspired everyone in attendance to do more and to be more - by embracing a new mindset and thinking outside the proverbial box.
Kowalski set the tone by starting his speech with a quote from Alvin Toffler, the 85-year-old American writer and futurist renowned for setting the standards of thought by which futurists-in-the-making follow. “The illiterate of the 21st century are not going to be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”
In our fast-paced world that is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA), Kowalski shared that the best way for us to create breakthrough innovations to help us respond to these ever-changing times is to look outside ourselves and the four walls within which we work. Specifically, Kowalski shared four particularly-powerful ways we can look outside of our comfort zones.
“The illiterate of the 21st century are not going to be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”
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To look outside of the tools we normally use, Kowalski recommended we need “to adopt an approach that we call search first, make second.” Instead of immediately running to create something new, we need to make the most of the world’s already-existing resources. By doing this, it’s quite possible that what we will find will be better than what we could have created ourselves. Instead of spending time reinventing the wheel, we need to see if there is already a wheel available. Once the search through all the existing resources has been exhausted, it’s then that we can think about designing something brand new. Kowalski emphasized that it’s important to utilize our time creating only new things that only we can create - not recreating what is already an available tool for us or creating something that anyone can create.
In addition, Kowalski explained that we also need to change our way of thinking about having to own our own tools; we don’t need to own them, we simply need quick and easy access to them. For example, in the past, Autodesk customers owned their tools. The problem with that business model, however, was that the software didn’t always provide the customer with the needed flexibility. If an Autodesk customer was getting ready to take on an exciting, huge project and, to get it done effectively, they had to hire a lot of new contractors (and give those new hires some of the same tools as their regular employees), that would make it impossible, if not impractical, for them to even accept the project. Today, however, the ownership model has finally caught up with the agility of the software model itself and Autodesk software can be rented instead of owned. This new easily-accessible model enables the users to quickly scale up and then back down, giving all those new workers the tools they need for just as long as the project lasts. It doesn’t matter if the company doesn’t own the tool, they don’t need to own it in order to get the project done.
“When you look at the mathematical realities of talent in our hyper-connected world,” shared Kowalski, “you quickly realize no matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else.”
“When you look at the mathematical realities of talent in our hyper-connected world,” shared Kowalski, “you quickly realize no matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else.” While traditionally most companies and their employees always functioned within four walls, our current VUCA reality no longer makes this a smart scenario. Kowalski suggested betters ways of embracing and accessing the brilliant minds outside of our four walls ~ open innovation. Also called crowdsourcing, co-creation, and social product development, this 21st century way of collaborating globally is a true revolution that’s changing the way that we all imagine, design, and create.
Huge companies like Procter & Gamble, for example, are using open innovation as a core part of their strategy through their Connect & Develop Program. This global virtual exchange invites people from both inside and outside P&G to contribute ideas to projects and challenges posted. Today, half of P&G’s product initiatives involve collaboration with the outside.
For the individual professional, it’s important to work toward improving your current skill set while simultaneously thinking about ways to look outside that skill set.
A new mindset regarding work encompasses not only new services and products that can be offered to customers, but also informal collaboration opportunities and professional development experiences an employee can pursue.
Kowalski suggested that companies benefit from looking outside to discover new services that they could be offering their clients to meet their evolving needs. If a company offers just one particular service, but knows that its customers must then seek additional companies for other services to complete their project, there’s no reason the first company can’t also offer those additional services and transform their niche business into a one-stop shop.
For the individual professional, it’s important to work toward improving your current skill set while simultaneously thinking about ways to look outside that skill set. In addition to taking classes you might need, Kowalski recommended taking classes you don’t think you need. Brainstorm with those whom you normally don’t share lunch. Unexpected conversations often lead to creative, wondrous new directions. If you’re an architect, explained Kowalski, talk to a plastics engineer about injection molding. When you are at work, ask yourself, “Where’s that guy in the Mohawk going?” Kowalski suggested that maybe you should be talking to him and maybe you can learn something from him that you didn’t know you needed to know.
Sources of insight
The last way to look outside relates to our sources of insight and inspiration. “These are the ways in which we learn things, challenge ourselves, and find the inspiration to do things differently and better,” explained Kowalski. By going outside our traditional way of gaining insight we discover our blind spots. “That’s why at Autodesk,” shared Kowalski, “we’re constantly looking for ways to go outside our existing points of view. We want to see what we’re missing, and what we should be paying attention to that we are not.”
The exact opposite of traditional mentoring, reverse mentoring is about younger people helping their more experienced peers by offering them insights on 21st century things like technology, social media, and emerging consumer trends
An example Kowalski shared of how to look outside for insight is through the unique concept of reverse mentoring. The exact opposite of traditional mentoring, reverse mentoring is about younger people helping their more experienced peers by offering them insights on 21st century things like technology, social media, and emerging consumer trends.
Kowalski went on to introduce reverse innovation; this is where something is originally designed for a developing world country facing constraints (like perhaps extremely low prices, limited natural resources, the need for simplicity) and then the designers discover that what they’ve conceptualized has found a lucrative market back in the developed world. By looking outside and adopting seemingly-impossible obstacles and constraints, but still being able to come up with a viable solution that is even better than the original product without contractions, that’s reverse innovation.
Kowalski concluded his impressive and inspiring presentation by reiterating that it’s critical for all of us to look outside our traditional four walls and explore the limitless possibilities and opportunities out there in the world – through tools, people, work, and sources of insight. By embracing open innovation and venturing outside, we suddenly (and wonderfully) become exposed to ideas, solutions, and opportunities we could have never before imagined.