Deb Westphal, CEO
What does innovation mean to you?
Innovation is fundamentally about value creation. To innovate well, you have to figure out the end state first. Focus on the problem you are trying to solve and the people who need it. The real test of any new concept is whether people will put money on it – which reminds us that the effort is not so much about generating science and technology as it is about meeting human needs and desires.
Spurring breakthrough discoveries and flawless engineering is necessary, but cultivating deep cultural understanding and thoughtful organizational design is just as important. New business models, internal processes, and relationships must back new technologies. A lot of great ideas die because people mistakenly think that innovation is the domain of R&D. It’s not – the real work of innovation is about connecting dots and spanning boundaries.
The first, last, and most important step in any innovation is nurturing meaningful connections among people and institutions.
What makes your company/organization innovative?
Toffler Associates is a small business with a flat structure and a values-based culture. Instead of offices, titles, and hierarchy, we focus on the tools and relationships needed to get the job done. We hold each other accountable to four core values:
1. Be Curious Lifelong Learners
2. Engage in Diverse Thought
3. Speak Truth to Power
4. Commit to Connection
These tenets are the heart of our nimble, flexible culture. They allow us to challenge each other, know our biases, search out blind spots, and connect across industries, markets, and customers.
Alvin and Heidi Toffler created Toffler Associates with a vision to create a better future. What made the firm innovative then is still true today. We maintain a 50-year tradition and tradecraft of understanding change, dealing with the implications, and helping organizations to adapt to the future as it emerges. It’s an approach that begins by imagining tomorrow then addressing the future through the reality of today. We connect the dots, search our perspectives, and bring together people with little in common except for a commitment to the future.
What or who are some innovative companies or people that inspire you and your team?
People and organizations that challenge the status quo and work toward a higher purpose inspire us at Toffler Associates.
Elon Musk is a great example. He has tenacity and is not afraid to buck the system. Through the products he brings to market, he’s living out his vision for a better society and is solving the biggest, most enduring problems of civilization. Tesla isn’t about the car; it is about changing our energy systems. SpaceX isn’t about the rocket; it’s about ensuring the survival of the human species. Musk teaches us that innovators can do well by doing good.
In a similar sense, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) shows that the way to solve wicked problems and meet audacious goals is to harness the power of diversity. Unlike most research programs, managers at DARPA aren’t scientists. They are systems thinkers and team leaders with high social intelligence. Their credentials include science/engineering and business/management, and their collaborations involve research teams and commercial partners. DARPA's successes, if infrequent, are huge: the Internet, the mouse, stealth, drones, and hand-held GPS.
What about Greater Washington has positioned us as an innovative region?
In Greater Washington, we have both sides of a very valuable coin represented. It’s an environment with private interests on one side, and public interests on the other. The federal and local governments work on policy that influences progress through market and non-market forces.
Balance requires tradeoffs and collaboration between public and private organizations. Washington, DC is where debates are had and tradeoffs are made on every conceivable issue. It’s where the public, private, and academic sectors meet in the interest of public welfare. It’s the center of national policy as well as the leading metro area on the Kauffman Index of Growth Entrepreneurship.
Every industry and type of entity is represented here, and there’s high professional mobility. The environment creates a dense and diverse network of insightful people who regularly interact, which guarantees the cross-pollination of ideas – and thus, innovation.
Innovation is about change, which means it is necessarily about political power. It is a national sovereignty issue, a competitiveness issue, and a national security issue. All of that is centered here.
What advice would you give to up-and-coming leaders striving to be innovative in today’s business environment?
After 50 years of helping organizations in the public and private sectors to understand, plan, and adapt to rapidly changing environments, we would advise emerging innovation leaders to strive for three things – vision, focus, and adaptability.
- Vision: Be aware of your biases and blind spots. Doing so will allow you to avoid going down rabbit holes.
- Focus: Be hyper-aware of what is happening in the larger market. Look outside the market you serve and stay aware of disruptions and changes that might pose threats or opportunities for your organization.
- Adaptability: Don’t try to be everything to everyone. Know what your organization is good at and stay focused. Remember that your competitive advantage may change over time. Remain flexible and future focused so you can adapt quickly to capture opportunities inherent in the disruptions that certainly are going to come.
At a time when change is accelerating and affecting more businesses, communities, and individuals than ever before, resilience begins with innovation.