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How do organizations innovate in the face of existential threats?

by Matt Davis
December 22, 2018

Some of the most impressive innovations are driven by fears of existential threats. Desperation creates pressure and opportunity, and can serve as a breeding grounds for out-of-the-box thinking and experimentation. Think: Apple’s iMac, T-Mobile’s un-contract, or Blackberry’s latest shift to software. Whether or not your organization faces such a crisis, product leaders and innovators benefit from embracing a similar mindset and sense of urgency.

In December, we hosted our inaugural event in Chicago to celebrate the opening of our regional office there. The keynote speaker and panelists featured entrepreneurs and technologists who bootstrapped and hustled their way toward developing innovations for underserved markets and life-threatening situations. They shared numerous lessons and insights about how to solve problems with your back against a wall.

Below are video highlights from the event, key takeaways, and a video of the unedited discussion.


A mindset of desperation

“Imagine if you could never eat with your mouth again,” said Tony Bombacino, the evening’s keynote speaker and Co-founder and CMO of Real Food Blends. Bombacino spent 15+ years in various digital and direct marketing leadership roles at companies of all sizes including Andersen, United Airlines, Omnicom Media Group, and But his career took a sudden turn when his newborn son, AJ, suffered a 45-minute seizure. Bombacino was told that, due to various complications, AJ was going to need a feeding tube for the rest of his life.

At the time, most meal packages made for feeding tubes contained chemicals and preservatives, and lacked any sort of variety. AJ’s body severely rejected the options, forcing Bombacino and his wife to improvise. By experimenting with fresh produce and a homemade blender, they developed a nutritious solution for AJ and soon disrupted a multi-billion dollar industry.

You’re not desperate until you’re MacGyvering your way toward innovation, Bombacino told the audience. His story serves as a testament what’s possible when your mission and ‘why’ are existential. According to Bombacino, desperation leads to inspiration which leads to innovation.

Find powerful and inspiring stories

Existential threats can be demoralizing and paralyzing. To stay motivated, product and innovation teams should rally around inspiring customer stories and anecdotes. Real Food Blends considers AJ to be their Chief Inspiration Officer and continually reflects on his perspective as well as testimonials sent in from customers around the world.

As humans, storytelling is built into our DNA. Stories are an emotional an effective roadmap from going from A to B, especially within chaotic and stressful environments. “Change is constant,” Bombacino proclaimed. “But some things are always fundamentally human. The technology changes but the people don’t.”

Mike Duffy, CEO and Founder, CityBase, a technology platform for government payment systems and functions, provided additional perspective on story-driven innovation. “The one absolute metric we have is positive constituent interactions, especially when you have a compulsory interactions, like paying your water bill.”

Your north star needs to be outcome-oriented from the user’s perspective, not from your own organization’s perspective, Duffy explained. “Seeing where people are today, and then migrating them, is our first and foremost metric.”

Move fast without breaking things

For years, Silicon Valley emphasized the importance of moving fast and breaking things. But when your customer base desperately depends on your solutions and you don’t have room for error, breaking things isn’t an option.

One of the event’s panelists was Jeff Judge, the CTO of ParkWhiz, a company that’s solving problems related to traffic and congestion in urban areas. “I love talking about KPIs,” Judge said. “For us, it’s making sure that no car ever gets towed – that’s something that can never happen. My mission is to make sure it never happens.”

When something does go wrong, it’s important to have invested in all the capabilities ahead of time to roll-back changes and course-correct immediately, Judge advised. Optimizing to eliminate disasters is a refreshing approach to technology development, and one that consumers everywhere seem to be increasingly appreciating whether or not an existential crisis is looming.

But failure is a critical part of learning and the innovation process. The key is making sure that its ramifications are mitigated. “At Farmer’s Fridge, we embarked on this project that we fully intended to fail,” said Caroline Coolidge, Director of Operations Systems. “We had this opportunity to put our fridges outdoor, when all of our existing ones are indoors.”

Farmer’s Fridge, a vending machine for healthy foods, took a potentially high-risk opportunity to evaluate potential edge cases for their offering. But they carefully dedicated the time and resources, even if it wasn’t cost-effective, to ensure that the customer experience never breached a certain threshold or risk-level.

“You could have put me in a room for hours with the smartest brains in the world,” Coolidge said. But they wouldn’t have learned as much as they did in a production environment. Coolidge’s example proves that, with creativity and thoughtfulness, experimentation and risk don’t have to go hand-in-hand.

You can watch the entire conversation below:


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Matt Davis

Matt Davis is the head of enterprise sales at Alpha, an on-demand insights platform. He is a seasoned business executive with 18+ years of corporate leadership, sales and agency experience in the media and software sectors.