Pete Foley Q&A: 4 Questions on Innovation

by Tyler Hagy

I’m thrilled to be sharing this post with all of you today and feel incredibly fortunate to have Pete Foley offer his thoughts on innovation and give advice to young design professionals.

Pete FoleyPete Foley has an extensive background in applying behavioral science to product design, innovation, and brand communication. He spent 25 years at P&G, is an engaging and passionate speaker, and has a PhD in Inorganic Chemistry from the University of Nottingham.

1. Pete, can you give a brief description of where you started your career and how you got to where you are today?

Pete: “It’s probably not what you’d call a linear career path. I started off in accountancy, had a brief fling with music, shifted to chemistry for my PhD, and then slowly migrated to behavioral and visual science while at P&G. I’m now primarily interested in how Behavioral, Cognitive and Perceptual Sciences apply to Design, Innovation and Marketing.”

2. In one of your posts, you talk about innovating how we innovate. What are ways we can not just be innovative in our solutions but also our processes to get to the end results?

Pete: “I think agility is critical, and one of the best ways to achieve this is to not fixate on one specific process. That is an easy trap to fall into, as once we have developed expertise in doing things in one particular way, our default is to try and solve everything using that approach; it’s the hammer looking for a nail analogy, and is a pervasive bias that is often invisible to us. Innovation also tends to be ‘trendy’, with certain processes gaining ascendancy at certain times. Disruptive Innovation and Design Thinking are recent examples. I’m by no means saying these particular processes or ways of approaching innovation are wrong, quite the opposite, as I think both are very valid in the right context. However, not every innovation needs to be disruptive, and design thinking is not the only way to come up with innovations. So I’m in favor of creating a toolbox of processes and skills, and trying to match the process to a specific problem on each individual occasion.

This is where I think we can learn from nature. The core innovation process in nature is sexual reproduction, which is essentially the mixing together of two ‘ideas’ to create a new one that blends a little of both of the originals, and ideally produces an outcome where 1+1 >2. The insight for me is the staggering variety of ways nature has found to have sex! It can be fast, slow, highly collaborative, managed at a distance, occasionally deadly, and it can produce lots of prototypes, few prototypes, can be nurturing, or be completely parentally indifferent. And that names just a few of the variations! I think this reflects a need to cater innovation methods to the environment, and also to be flexible as that environment changes. The bottom line is that I don’t believe there is a ‘one size fits all’ innovation process.. The cost of prototypes, the cost of failure, and how dynamic your market place is should influence both innovation process and strategy, which I think are closely linked, and as innovators, we can only make choices if we have a variety of options in our toolbox.”

3. I know you find it effective to make analogies and using metaphors to connect the dots. Have designers always done this? Any examples?

Pete: “I think looking to see who or what has already solved a problem is a, if not the, natural way humans innovate. You only have to go back to da Vinci to see this in action, and while the written records are not terribly good, it appears that even our earliest ancestors used jaw bones for sawing, animal skins to keep warm, etc. I bet the first person to work out the value of wearing an animal skin on a cold winters night was a bit of a celebrity innovator in their time! The point is that good ideas are often very transferable. I’d argue that airbnb and Uber are essentially the same concept, but applied in different contexts. Or you can use principles from fluid dynamics to optimize traffic flow, or people flow in casinos or cruise ships. Apple do this really well in a slightly different way, taking multiple concepts from different domains, and blending them into some emergent, like an iPod, iPad or a watch. If you want to immerse yourself in how ideas can be reapplied and adapted across different domains, I highly recommend James Burke’s classic Connections series from the BBC, which does a wonderful job of documenting how we naturally flow ideas from one domain to another, and how the surprising connections often lead to really big inventions. However, some people are naturally good at making these analogical connections, while for others it is a bit more of a struggle. That’s why I urge being a bit more systematic about harnessing this natural human ability, and defining problems in ways that facilitate seeing analogies. I personally find mapping, systems views, and visual representations of problems to be a good way of doing this, together with understanding a little of the theory of analogy and knowledge mapping.”

4. What is one piece of advice you would give to young design leaders?

Pete: “Learn to understand what people really, really want, and don’t fall too much in love with your idea. To the second point, a little bit of love is good, but love is also blind, and if you are too head over heels, it can be hard to see the faults, and hence fix them. To the first point, understanding what people really want is crucial, and sometimes underated. It is easy to be seduced by action and prototyping, and to start creating before we really know what people really want, or what problem we are trying to solve. Time spent on problem definition, or mapping an opportunity space often feels less sexy than creating, but it is crucial, and stops us creating internal biases, or putting on blinders early in the innovation process. This means thoughtful research is an integral part of innovation. The problem here is that a lot of traditional research is flawed. We spend a lot of time asking people questions, but most people don’t really know what they want. Context, mood, and recent events play a huge role in creating needs, desires and behaviors, but we are terrible at anticipating these effects on our future selves. No matter how skilled a facilitator, or how accurate a brain scan, it is really difficult to extract information from people that they themselves don’t know yet! So for the most part, I am not a big believer in surveys, focus groups, or even a lot of neuromarketing. These techniques put people in contexts that are just too different from the ones where they will actually make decisions. Instead I am a huge believer in taking research out of the lab, and away from the computer desktop (unless of course you are researching computers or software), and testing ideas in the real world. This creates more realistic, and hence more predictive contextual influences. Moving out of the lab often means sacrificing a comforting illusion of certainty that comes with consistent behaviors and solid statistics. The real world is messy, and therefore so is the data we generate when we are in it. But, if we can get comfortable with that, I think we can design things that resonate better with real human needs. This is so important because if we don’t get the initial idea right, and don’t test in the real world, then no matter how great the design work that goes on after the fact, it is potentially wasted.”

Pete Foley will be speaking on at Innovate @ TBD FEST in Sacramento this September.

originally posted on: LinkedIn

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Tyler Hagy is an industrial designer, possibility thinker, creative problem solver, and human-centered innovator fascinated with creating experiences.