Michelle Greenwald – Inventours™

Thomas Edison’s words flowed through Michelle Greenwald’s mouth like electricity through a wire: bringing her to life.  “To invent you need a good imagination and a pile of junk,” she quoted.

I could sense her passion about invention, about innovation, about helping others find their way.  Michelle loves to promote innovation and invention, and her new program for innovators, called Inventours™, does much more than deliver a pile of junk to spur invention.

Each weeklong Inventours™ program, in a different city globally, exposes its participants to cutting-edge innovation in product and industrial design, architecture, fashion, food, art, technology and hospitality.  Or as the Inventours™ pithy tagline says, “insider access to leading innovators in the world’s most creative cities.”

Barcelona, Spain. Paris, France.  Copenhagen, Denmark.  New York, United States.

Every city/country has different innovation specialties – such as Denmark’s design tradition of simple aesthetics and functionality – to inspire the eager minds of the participants.  The participants, who will be Chief Innovation Officers, Chief Marketing Officers, and Heads of Research & Development, and Design at large corporations, mixed in with other unique individuals, will each bring their viewpoint to the table.  The goal of the program is more than just providing stimuli; it is also to engage the participants in scintillating conversations and to inspire a true cultural shift in ways of thinking about innovating within their companies.

So how did Michelle’s career lead her to this point?

Michelle spent her career in marketing and new product development, working for Disney and Pepsi, among others.  Along the way she has supervised the thousands of new product and marketing projects her students have developed.  And, in case it comes up during your next trivia game, she is the brain behind the brand name “Laffy Taffy” as well as the idea of licensing Daffy Duck to represent it (it’s Daffy for Laffy Taffy!).

Throughout her career, she developed a profound interest in innovation. “I just love when I see something innovative.  I’m working on a book about innovation and I go around literally the world – wherever I am – and I take pictures of anything that I see that’s innovative.  And I look at what’s innovative about it.  I think there are different lines of thinking to come up with innovative ideas and I have categorized them to help companies think more broadly as they innovate,” Michelle told me.

It all culminated when she was teaching at IESE business school in Spain.  The chairman of the Marketing department co-wrote a case about Ferran Adriá, one of the most creative chefs in the world.  Adriá’s food concoctions, as detailed in the HBS Working Knowledge Forum, range from beetroot and yogurt ice-cream lollipops to a deconstructed Spanish omelet presented in a parfait glass.

Learning more about Ferran Adriá’s unique and successful approach to the culinary profession left Michelle pondering how she could contribute more to the world of innovation.  “There’s a notion of cross-pollination of ideas that’s very prevalent right now,” she said, and that led her to think about how innovation in food could be applied to innovation in business, art, music or interior design, or… so many other industries!  Someone wrote a symphony, inspired by a meal at Ferran Adria’s restaurant.  They all cross over.

But at first this was just an idea, with no tangible implementation method.  Then, Michelle observed a Darden professor’s study tour program in Barcelona.  Daily, the students would explore the work of famous artists and architects – Picasso, Dali, Gaudi, Miro – and afterwards they had a debrief session about management principles and innovation: how the innovations they had seen in the paintings and buildings can relate back to business.

Suddenly all these stimuli around Michelle coalesced and she knew what she had to do: create Inventours™!  Cross-sector inspirations with exposure to different cultures and practitioners, people who have innovated and succeeded in different ways.  She also explained another integral part.  “The participants will learn about different innovation processes and philosophies.  So we’ll be going to the offices of these places, to these innovative firms, so we can see how the physical environmental contributes to creativity and the interplay between different functional groups.  Because there are definitely a lot of firms that have thought a lot about how they create an interactive kind of environment.”

Pilot Program

Inventours™ is launching in full force in 2013.  But before that, Greenwald held a one-day pilot program in New York this past September 28th.

The program featured guests such as Peter Weijmarshausen, CEO of Shapeways, a 3-D printing company.  “Weijmarshausen feels that 3-D printing will revolutionize the world in very broad and profound ways.  It makes sense though.  Think about if a ship is out at sea and a part breaks down.  Instead of having to go to port, they could just manufacture the part on the ship,” Michelle explained to me.

In contrast, the program also explored smaller-scale innovation.  For example, the participants ventured to 5 Pointz in Queens where experts in color and fragrance discussed trend forecasting based on the graffiti art in the neighborhood.

The one-day pilot program in New York will help Michelle work out the final kinks in program design and logistics.  “Unless you actually implement something you don’t necessarily think of all the issues.  So this is forcing me, in a more manageable way – a one-day program – to deal with a lot of the issues.  Then I’ll know and be more conscious of these issues when I launch,” Greenwald told me.

Putting together the final programs is a study in logistics.  In each city Michelle plans to organize five visits a day, for a total of 25 visits in one program.  There’s food, speakers, transportation, and every tiny detail to organize.  But Michelle finds the logistics and research exhilarating and exciting.

The Future

Eventually Greenwald hopes to maintain six programs a year, and also develop programs that drill down in one topic.  Want to do a food innovation tour?  Or one about fashion?  Inventours™ will be there.

She also hopes that her program will change the way companies innovate, by encouraging people think more broadly when they innovate.  “They won’t look at just what’s going on in their industry.  My favorite example is Apple.  When they developed the iMac computer with the glossy colored plastic exteriors they went to a jelly bean factory to see how they made shiny, colored, glossy materials because they wanted the same effect.”

The Key to Innovation?

“That’s a hard question to answer.  Coming up with something different, but in a good way.  Something that makes people’s lives easier, more fun, more enjoyable.  It can be very simple – meeting a consumer need in a way that can be totally obvious.  For me, there’s a can of tennis balls that added a fourth ball to the can.  I thought that was innovative.  Why had nobody ever thought of challenging the 3-balls-to-a-can rule?  Everybody always needs a fourth ball!”

Inventours™ is to businesses as the fourth ball is to a can of tennis balls.  It will make the businesses last longer in the game.

“Every firm wants to be faster to market.  They’re all looking to be better, faster, have more breakthroughs.  So hopefully they’ll get some ideas with Inventours™.  If they get one good idea about how to innovate differently, it’s all worth it,” Greenwald concluded.


Michelle’s Tips for Aspiring Entrepreneurs

  • Develop a concept board, something visual that people can respond to.  It needs to stand on its own so people can understand what it’s all about when you’re not there to champion your idea.
  • Be aware of all the nuances in everything you do.  The fonts you pick, the words and visuals you select and where you place them, are all important details.
  • New product design is always subject to Murphy’s Law.  Be aware of that, keep adapting, and try to anticipate what can go wrong.
  • If you’re not sure who your target audience is or what parts of your idea they like most, show your concept to a wide range of people so they can provide you with valuable feedback.
  • The more people you talk to, the more you will learn.
  • Learn, learn, learn.
  • Listen.
  • Always plant seeds.  You never know what you’ll spark in someone and how they might contribute to your project.
  • Make sure to put yourself out there as much as possible.
  • If you don’t do things, nothing will happen.  Everything depends on you.  If you stop, then things are going to stop.  You must be in perpetual motion, moving your idea forward.
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