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Speaker challenges city to utilize creative powerhouse


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West Coast innovation consultant Peter Coughlan speaks Tuesday during the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce's annual luncheon at the Clarion Hotel. / Andrew Laker for The Republic
West Coast innovation consultant Peter Coughlan speaks Tuesday during the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce's annual luncheon at the Clarion Hotel. / Andrew Laker for The Republic


Columbus could become an innovation model for cities around the world — and it might have started Tuesday.

West Coast innovation consultant Peter Coughlan spent a few hours Tuesday afternoon in a workshop with Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce members defining how business leaders can develop an innovative mindset. He had been invited back to Columbus as keynote speaker at the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce annual meeting at the Clarion after previously working as a consultant with Columbus Regional Hospital.

During his presentation, he asked the audience of more than 500 to consider this: People can live and work anywhere — why would they choose to live in Columbus?

The answer, he said, is cultivating innovative behavior in organizations and in the community to take advantage of the city’s strengths. He asked the business leaders to consider what Columbus does amazingly well. It could be the city’s architectural heritage. Or it could be the engineering employment base here, one of the largest contingents of engineers in the United States, Coughlan said.

Coughlan, a staff member with the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, Calif., said Columbus is poised to become the next “maker” city — a creative powerhouse because it has infrastructure and talent to draw from when trying new ideas.

“I come from Silicon Valley, but this place is way cooler,” he said of Columbus.

To start the process, Coughlan defined characteristics of innovative organizations, starting with curiosity.

“Why is it always the innovators who continue to innovate?” he asked. “They have a hunger to keep getting better with what they are doing.”

The next step is to make it your own, which means whatever generic best practice an organization is using isn’t going to work unless it is redefined to match a company’s or organization’s specific goals.

He gave an example of Proctor and Gamble’s efforts to “kill bad ideas earlier in development,” which drew laughter when Coughlan explained that what that actually meant was to “get consumer input earlier in the project.”

The company developed an innovation center that’s called “The Gym” where innovative employees could work out ideas, but it didn’t work at first because it didn’t fix the process in relation to Proctor and Gamble. By redefining the idea to the company’s specific needs, the company was able to turn its idea into one that worked.

To become innovative means dealing with what Coughlan termed “the inevitable antibodies,” those people in organizations who are trying to kill innovation, he said.

But to be fair, he cautioned, most people don’t wake up every morning with the goal of killing innovation as one of their goals for the day.

Coughlan explained there are hidden assumptions that many organizations foster without realizing it, such as a perception that its risky to offer ideas, and that the traditional executive mindset isn’t about innovation — it’s about expertise, maintaining the status quo and identifying problems to fix.

“You don’t want a pilot innovating flying a plane,” Coughlan said.

But the best leaders have not only the deep expertise of their jobs but also have an inquisitive mind, and while seeing flaws, they suspend their judgment. They maintain the status quo but still are willing to explore new paths.

For Columbus to become more innovative, it will take all of that, and some soul-searching as a city, Coughlan believes.

“Innovation for the sake of what?” he asked. “How do you want people to feel because they live here? What’s your superpower?”

Coughlan recommended finding out what people are truly passionate about and applying that passion to the unmet human needs in the community.

Being experimental but committed, with some resources behind it, can result in innovative thinking bringing about changes to a community, Coughlan said.

“We can develop our own way to prototype our way to the future,” he said.

What would you choose?

During Tuesday’s Design Thinking Workshop, consultant Peter Coughlan asked business leaders at the Columbus Chamber annual meeting to choose one of four topics as the most important to the city. He asked, “Which would you choose as the one the city most needs to use an innovative mindset to solve?”

Here are the four topics. In a show of hands, those attending the chamber meeting before the workshop made a choice also, which is revealed at the end of the list.

Should Columbus:

  • Make everyone feel at home?
  • Enable all residents to make healthier and sustainable food choices?
  • Encourage creativity and inventiveness among our citizens?
  • Create a “Wow” experience for anyone visiting the city.

The majority of people attending the chamber annual meeting Tuesday chose the “Wow” experience option.

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