As we get ready to close out November, I’m reflecting on how the innovation frontier has changed, and will change in the year ahead.  Earlier this month I had the opportunity to join many innovation professionals in Phoenix for the 35th Annual Global Conference on Product Innovation Management.

We all know that leaders who aren’t on top of their game will be beaten. This conference was designed to help innovation professionals verify their confidence and validate their competencies in innovation.

Whether an early adopter — or part of the late majority — it was good to see a diverse group of researchers and innovation practitioners have the opportunity to share knowledge and gain new insights into product development.

Participant interaction was a key component of the daytime events with workshops and labs in addition to expert presentations.

Steven Fahrenholtz, a strategy and innovation director from General Mills, delivered the opening keynote on “Empathy in Innovation.” His interesting perspective is that to launch great products you not only need great ideas, tools and process, but also emotion. The role of emotion is often overlooked or even ignored, but his company actively looks to build consumer empathy into its business teams to help create products that not only deliver on needs, but that try to strike an emotional connection with customers.

Ravi Arora, vice president of Tata Quality Management Services, spoke of how Tata has made a commitment to grow from an India-based organization into a global force in many business sectors, and the role that fostering a culture of innovation has played. Part of the success that Tata have recently achieved is attributed to a formal group of senior managers that are specifically responsible for inspiring, enabling and encouraging innovation across the company.

You may not think of innovation when you think of the toy industry, but it was just a few years ago that LEGO was facing serious financial difficulties. David Robertson of The Wharton School delivered a keynote on how innovation helped reinvent LEGO and make it such a powerhouse today in the toy industry. LEGO used innovation, not just in products, but also in pricing, business processes and market channels to fuel the turnaround.

These were just a few of the keynote talks that helped set the tone. Beyond that I found that the unique, hands-on Discovery Labs were quite valuable. These unconventional labs consisted of interactive sessions covering topics like driving consumer impact, portfolio management, the “Voice of the Consumer,” and business model innovation.

Other interested attendees had the opportunity to hone their product development skills through an intensive full-day New Product Development Professional certification preparation session. Experts in new product development guided the class through key strategies and best practices that have worked for them. To me there is no substitute for learning from real practitioners with hands-on experience.

I’ll certainly look forward to attending next year’s conference to see what new approaches are being explored and how they are being put into practice in the ever-evolving world of product innovation.

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