The first-ever Intersection Event was covered by the Stanford Social Innovation Review. Click here to read the article, or see below.

At the Heart of Innovation, Failure and Trust

A report from the first-ever Intersection Event

By Jenifer Morgan1 | Jan. 18, 2012

Innovators “intersect” during lunch in Pixar’s atrium.

At the first-ever Intersection Event last weekend in Emeryville, Calif., innovators from a variety of fields—entertainment to philanthropy—came together to share experiences on innovation and social change. The theme of the day was “intersecting” with new tools, ideas, and perspectives as a way to spur innovation, and in particular, to design and develop social impact projects. Pixar’s bright and airy headquarters opened its doors to 300-plus innovators for the day, and both the environment and keynote speakers were duly inspiring. Here are a few highlights.

Frans Johansson, author of The Medici Effect, used architect Mick Pearce’s study of termite mounds to devise a naturally cooling, A/C-free building in sweltering Harare, Zimbabwe, as well as the burqini and Sweden’s ice hotel to illustrate that all new ideas are combinations of existing ideas. Through these examples and others, Johansson described how success usually comes after many failures, course corrections, and leaps of faith, and advised, “The riskiest thing is to do the same thing over and over.”

Later in the day,  Guru Singh explained that poverty, starvation, and ignorance are not inherently human, and that the root of these problems lies in our failure to update an antiquated distribution system. (He also recommended the following books: Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies; 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus; and Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World).  He said that crisis brings evolution and, referring to primate evolution 7.5 million years ago, shared his belief that “the new standing up” is activating our consciousness.

Left to right: author Frans Johansson, IDEO’s Tim Brown, and Pixar’s Ed Catmull discuss collaboration and design.

Other conversations centered on leadership. A session on collaboration and design featured Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, and Ed Catmull, president of Pixar, both of whom manage vast creative teams. Brown and Catmull stressed that innovation starts out in the world, not in your head—that you need to travel outside of the design studio to understand what your consumer or audience wants and identifies with—and that creativity works best in an environment where people feel it’s safe to make something that doesn’t work, where failure is an accepted part of the creative process.

Walt Disney CTO Gregg Brandeau and John Hagel III, director of Deloitte Center for the Edge, discussed the importance of building long-term relationships through trust on all levels of business. Brandeau talked about internal trust, suggesting that successful leaders hire people “smarter than them,” and then mold the work environment in a way that helps those people fulfill their potential. Hagel used the highly successful but little-known supply-chain business Li & Fung as an example of a company that steadily has gained the trust and respect of 15,000 partners in 40 different economies. Hagel sees this type of complex network model as the future for all sectors.

Throughout the day, the importance of good faith and of getting things wrong during the process of innovation seemed to come up again and again. The road to innovation is neither straight nor tidy, as Catmull remarked: “Getting the process right is not the goal.” The goal is to create something new that people want—and in some cases, desperately need.