The Fast Company Innovation Festival is a week-long gathering of entrepreneurs, thinkers, creators, and practitioners dedicated to holding business to a higher standard. The event drew more than 8,000 attendees (of which, interestingly, 68% were women), from 60 different countries). This year’s theme was “Leading With Optimism”. Here are a few of the most optimism-fueling lessons from the Festival, according to Fast Company editor-in-chief Robert Safian.
- Respect people – and things – you don’t understand. Diversity is more than a social issue; it’s a business requirement. Morgan Stanley’s Carla Harris says that having “a lot of different people in the room” unlocks broader ideas and opportunities. Diversity breaks down silos and frees voices. Having respect for ideas that we don’t necessarily understand or feel at ease with is vital as well. “In a competitive world, we have to get comfortable with a higher-than-usual degree of messiness if we want to iterate at the pace of global change”, says Safian. “Whether the topic is bitcoin or AI, we have to accept that our knowledge is incomplete, that lifelong learning is required.” Companies that are dedicated to continuous learning have a huge advantage over the competition.
- Make time for face-to-face time. “In our tech-filled world of always-on connectivity, augmented reality, and artificial intelligence, direct interaction provides the ultimate competitive advantage.” Fred Dust, Partner and Global Manager of Ideo, is concerned that face-to-face engagement is a disappearing art. And Brandless CEO Tina Sharkey says, “People are craving human interaction. That’s going to move the needle more than any technology you could ever dream up.” Companies where empathy and listening are prioritized are much more likely to see creativity and innovation flourish.
- Bridge all of the generation gaps. The things that differentiate one age group from another are becoming less specific as science takes precedence over age. “While seasoned executives still have wisdom to share with young talents… modern mentorship is a two-way street.” Doug Guiley, SVP of West Elm and Williams-Sonoma Inc., freely admits he turns to his 12-year-old daughter for perspective on his brand. Every forward-thinking company should be aware of the value of the fresh eyes and intuition digital natives bring to the table.
- Make your organization a platform for change. Although governments are said to be the stewards of our social contract, all institutions must provide their own leadership if they want to break old habits and bring about change. Hannah Jones, Nike’s chief sustainability officer and VP of its innovation accelerator, described the way the world is inexorably moving to renewable energy, despite opposition from some quarters. And change doesn’t stop there: “From education to gender identity norms, businesses play a central role in advancing global culture. Forward-thinking leaders embrace that responsibility with conviction”, says Safian.
- Don’t expect the best; make it happen. Kimbal Musk (brother of Elon) spoke about the future of food, championing his vision for growing produce in vertical farms within cities. Musk’s fellow panelist, Dan Barber, a renowned local and sustainable eating advocate, argued for family farming that balances ecology, sustainability, and health. Despite these wildly different approaches, Safian says, “The fact that their visions are difficult to execute is part of what drives them. They take nothing for granted – and they put everything they have into remaking this vital sector. In the process, they open the door to a better way for all of us.” This lesson applies to all businesses: if you believe in your ideas, defend them fiercely: it’s the only path to innovation – and to success.