2016 Markets Symposium – Small Steps, Big Strides: The Power of Incremental Innovation

Progress is often portrayed in terms of big breakthroughs, but in practice is more likely to result from small improvements over time. Behold the power of incremental innovation. 

To explore this concept BBH assembled 250 senior executives for the 2016 BBH Markets Symposium in our Boston office on November 17, 2016.

The afternoon included three sessions which explored the main principles of incremental innovation, how to apply them to achieve results, and what it means to “never quit.”  

Here are some key takeaways:

1.    Borrow from the Past.  Experiment.  Combine Vision with Urgency.

BBH Chief Investment Strategist Scott Clemons, CFA (pictured at right), took the “long view” with a sweeping history lesson that spanned the printing of the Gutenberg Bible to the development of Uber.  We learned to:

  1. Ensure acceptance of innovation by borrowing from the past – Gutenberg chose to print something people were familiar with rather than something radically new.
  2. Recognize the possibility of “happy accidents” – An experiment to create a super adhesive led to creation of the sticky substance used on Post-It notes.
  3. Develop “antifragility” through a system enhanced by stress – Products gain resilience through stress and durability testing; weaknesses happen in its absence.   
  4. Think long-term, but do it with urgency- citing Thomas Jefferson’s vision to plant trees at Monticello despite objections he wouldn’t live long enough to appreciate their beauty, Scott encouraged us to act with urgency when implementing our long-term visions.  Festina lente:  Make haste slowly.

2.    Focus on “what matters?” not on “what’s the matter?”

George Pereira, COO of Charles Schwab Investment Management; Nadine Chakar, Global Head of Operations and Data Management for Manulife Investments; and Kate Walsh, Boston Medical Center President and CEO (pictured at right), joined BBH Partner Chris Remondi to discuss the challenges organizations face in implementing and adhering to a culture of innovation. We learned:

  1.  Changing focus from ‘what’s the matter?’ to ‘what matters to you?’ can be a profound organizational shift that leads to more satisfied clients
  2. Reducing complexity and increasing transparency might be the quickest way to developing meaningful innovations
  3. Interconnectedness leads to the development of better, more holistic solutions  
  4. Information may be distracting us from insights:  An obsession with the increasing deluge of data can get in the way of true progress  
  5. Empowering internal teams to achieve marginal gains makes a difference

3.    Failure is an option.  Quitting isn’t.  

Recounting his rigorous physical and mental training as a Team Leader in the Naval Special Warfare Development Group (SEAL Team Six), Robert O’Neill (pictured at right) spoke about the failures and stresses he experienced in highly demanding, fluid environments, concluding they drove the continuous adjustments and improvements necessary for success.  We learned:

  1. Failure is an option – as long as you learn from your failures
  2. Be prepared, but don’t over plan
  3. Don’t react, respond:  Remove emotion from the decision-making process
  4. Quitting today is never an option:  Do it tomorrow
  5. Keep communication concise, and never pass on an opportunity to shut up 


Putting Marginal Gains into Practice

November 17, 2016