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Careers in Innovation Panel at the University of Bristol

Published Date: 13 February 2020
Photo by Cole Keister on Unsplash

This week, our Strategic Partnerships and Growth Manager, Josiane Smith, was invited to sit on a panel about Careers in Innovation The event was for single and joint masters students at the University of Bristol’s Centre for Innovation & Entrepreneurship.

What was this panel about and what was different about it?

This was a panel of real humans who work in ‘innovation’ roles. We shared our experiences, explained what we did all day, and offered some tips on carving out a career doing innovative things.

Innovation was applied differently for most of us, from technology or products to more social or creative innovation, and we all had different roles around it, from product design to managing an innovation hub to doing business development, so we all approached the questions from different perspectives. It really felt like the conversation was broad enough to inspire the students to consider multiple possibilities for their futures.

Who sat alongside you on the panel? 

  • Sophie Adams-Foster – New Product & Business Development – Realise Product Design

  • Stuart East – Senior Product Manager – Hargreaves Lansdown

  • Sam Fry – Digital Project Manager - IBM

  • Neil Morris – Chief Executive – The Filter

  • Josiane Smith – Partnerships & Growth Manager – Social Innovation Exchange

What did you discuss?

We were asked the general questions like who we were and what we do all day, what skills we use, and how we found our way into the roles we have now. Some of my fellow panellists had some really interesting career paths, ranging from exploring the arts and new technology (and now running innovation hubs in IBM and Ford Motors), to being an “intrapreneur” at the BBC back in 1997 (and making a lot of people in the BBC news team quite angry with all his team’s “disruptions”!)

What questions were you asked?

How does innovation show up in your work? 

Our answers ranged from how we visualise the problems we’re working with, or how we provide collaborative, safe space to explore the potential and the edges of things, and how we promote diverse perspectives in the discussions we’re having, and of course, asking a lot of good questions!

What is the difference between how big and small organisations “do” innovation?

The IBM and Hargreaves Lansdown side of the spectrum mentioned having senior management buy-in and a culture that is comfortable with, or positive about, new ideas, experimentation and change (e.g. “flat hierarchy”). The rest of us agreed that internal culture is very important, regardless of team size.

Do you need innovation in the title to innovate? What role can you innovate most in?

This was an interesting question from the floor! We agreed that a person’s mandate is a key part of doing innovative work - sometimes that comes from your title, which affords you certain access to decision-makers and money, as well as the “permissions” you are granted in your role to explore, propose, do different things.

More than mandate and title, however, we felt that having an innovative mindset means that, while you may be in a seemingly unrelated role, you may simply see a problem and want to do something about it. And as one panellist said, “some people will follow you into the idea, and some people probably won’t.”

At what point does innovation become hard in a company / how do you meet deadlines when doing an innovation project that just needs more time?

The panel all laughed at these questions because we’ve all faced them at some point ourselves! The truth is, innovation is hard work - getting your team on board, gathering the right evidence, making the first steps happen, getting “lucky” with the timing of everything… Plus there will be surprising roadblocks on the way, ranging from full-scale resistance all the way to ambivalence or apathy from key stakeholders. If an idea is good, it will stick.

Also, some problems take years to work through; in some contexts, deadlines are artificial ways to track progress. Deciding early on what the most realistic measures of success will be, is useful when seeking to address complex problems in projects with shorter timeframes. That said, certain innovation processes like agile, SCRUM or design springs can be useful for following a proven process of doing innovation whilst still meeting tight deadlines.

What was the takeaway?

After the panel, a handful of students approached me to ask about my work in social innovation, and about the Global Innovation Academy, which SIX is piloting the summer and winter schools for. 

They wanted to know about the role of behaviour change, about how professions like law and human rights could use social innovation more, and about how to get into this type of work after their degrees. It felt interesting that these students are often co-majors in disciplines like psychology or history AND innovation, so were really engaged in the world around them. Their ability to mix with each other and find common ground is a fundamental part of this process. It was truly great to meet them and hear about the work of the centre in pioneering innovation within the university’s culture and curricula. I hope to be back again!