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[Interview] Kris Oestergaard, Co-Founder And Chief Learning And Innovation Officer At SingularityU Nordic, Copenhagen, Denmark

Kris Oestergaard is a researcher, author and globally sought after keynote speaker on innovation, corporate culture and the impact of technological change. At SingularityU Nordic, a collaborative venture with Singularity University in Silicon Valley, he is on the frontlines of exponential technology. For the past 20 years, Oestergaard has consulted for both established businesses and startups around the world.

Kris has authored, co-authored and translated books on organizational innovation, including his new book, “Transforming Legacy Organizations: Turn your Established Business into an Innovation Champion to Win the Future“. He is also a Certified Experience Economy Expert and the first recipient of the prestigious Experience Management Achievement Award outside of the U.S.

Describe your professional background and how it led to your current position as Chief Learning and Innovation Officer at SingularityU Nordic?

The thread in my career has always been about understanding human motivation — what makes people do things; what makes them not do things. After business school, I worked for several years in market research as a qualitative researcher. This led me to understand that any offering that companies create only plays a smaller part in the entire experience that their customers or users have, and therefore that companies need to work much more holistically with their offerings.

This is at the core of experience design or design thinking. I was fortunate to learn from the best, Joe Pine, who coined the term and co-wrote the book “The Experience Economy“. Working from this holistic perspective meant that I ended up starting my own experience design consultancy and, together with my current co-founder Laila Pawlak, we produced many events, ran a network, did executive training and opened a co-working space out of an old auto body shop.

Having always been a big reader, another book, after The Experience Economy, transformed my thinking radically. This was The Singularity Is Near, by Ray Kurzweil, which describes technological development, the law of accelerating returns and how the doublings in computational power has powered digitization of our societies. Reading this book, I remember thinking that if only 10 percent of what Ray was writing were true, then I had no idea how the world really worked. I decided that I needed to know more and so attended a program at Singularity University, which Ray co-founded. I learned about developments in artificial intelligence, robotics, computation, digital biology, etc., which really opened my eyes to how massively we can impact the world if only we use these technologies in the right way.

Both my co-founder and I started working with Singularity University, teaching at their programs, and about 2-1/2 years ago we opened up the Nordic entity of Singularity University, SingularityU Nordic in Copenhagen to create an educational institution where people can learn about technology and how to leverage it to make a positive impact in the world in an ethical way.

What are the most common obstacles to organizational innovation?

When it comes to obstacles towards innovation, there tends to be a lot of finger pointing going on. Top management point to middle management and say they don’t want to innovate; middle management point to the employees; and employees point back at middle management. But really, human resistance to change is the minor obstacle when it comes to innovation. Barriers in the organizational system are much more important. This has to do with misalignment between KPIs and strategy, the misconception that all innovations must be aligned with legacy IT and processes, and investors’ and shareholders’ demands for too short returns on investment.

What are some different ways in which organizations can approach innovation?

Innovation in established organizations has to be thought of as a three track endeavor:

1) Optimizing Innovation, which is about optimizing existing offerings and processes — the metaphorical extra blade on the razor. This is what most established organizations are already world champions in.

2) Augmenting Innovation, which is about leveraging technology to upgrade the existing core. This is partly about technology and partly about transforming the organizational culture into a culture full of innovators.

3) Mutating Innovation, which is about challenging the core by conducting the much more radical experiments about “what if’s” of the future. If companies are successful with their mutating innovations, they will ultimately shift the shape of the organizational core.

Can you share an example of a company that has proven to be on a successful innovation trajectory?

A great case of a legacy company that’s on a highly interesting journey towards mutating its core is Japanese airline ANA. The core of what they do is transporting human beings from A to B over long distances through flying. But they’ve initiated a radical experiment that, if successful, will transform the company. The ANA Avatar XPRIZE is a global competition to essentially develop technologies to teleport human beings. This may sound very sci-fi, but hundreds of team are currently working around the world to solve this problem using virtual reality, haptics and robots. If these experiments are successful, they’ll create massive opportunity for ANA in redefining travel through radical innovation.

What’s an example of a hack you’ve uncovered that has helped an organization create an innovation culture?

Most organizations have a status quo culture, which means that they’d rather not loose than win. It’s helpful to develop culture hacks that counter this attitude and motivate organizations to take more risks. One example of a culture hack that doesn’t even cost money is the Courageous Penguin Award that’s given in certain departments of Google. The idea behind the award comes from when penguins stand by the edge of an iceberg and consider jumping in the water. One has to be the first. But the first penguin doesn’t know if it will hit water or ice beneath the water. Therefore it takes courage to be the first to jump and lead the way for the rest of the colony. With the Courageous Penguin Award, Google rewards the same type of courage. This is a simple hack, but it speaks to the type of culture the organization is trying to create and it’s highly motivational.

Learn more at sunordic.org.

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