The Future of Innovation Appears Secure

Stephen DeAngelis

August 15, 2011

Sharon Daniels, chief executive of AchieveGlobal, claims that “continual innovation may be the most powerful of any competitive advantage for a business.” [“The ‘Six C’s’ Model for Building A Culture of Innovation,” Chief Executive, 26 April 2011] To achieve “continual innovation,” Daniels argues that a company needs to foster a culture of innovation. She claims that her company “has identified the particular tactics that businesses are using to build this culture.” Fortunately, she claims that “these tactics are replicable and scalable.” In her article she discusses these tactics “under six headings, each beginning with the letter C.” She begins with collaboration:

“1. Collaborative — The great innovators of years past didn’t rely on teamwork. Think Edison, Einstein, Ford. But what worked then doesn’t work any more. With rare exceptions (think Michael Dell, Jeff Bezos), innovation now needs the collaboration of a large and diverse group of people — the larger and more diverse the better. This is confirmed by a Northwestern University study of 19.9 million scientific papers and 2.1 million patents that showed that the more participants involved in innovation efforts the better the results.”

Although I agree with Daniels’ conclusion, I disagree with her comments. Edison, Einstein, and Ford all collaborated. In his book The Art of Innovation, Tom Kelley wrote, ‘The myth of the lone genius can actually hamper [an organization’s] efforts in innovation and creativity. … Loners are so caught up in their idea that they are reluctant to let it go, much less allow it to be experimented with and improved upon.’ He goes on to note that Thomas Edison, who is often pointed to as a lone genius, had a team of fourteen people that helped him conceive, build, and market his inventions.” The fact that collaborative innovation is increasing is a good thing.” Daniels continues:

“2. Customer Centered — A culture of innovation requires a deep commitment to understanding customers’ expectations and providing them with value. Our study revealed that a company’s customers can actually take the lead in helping it make significant innovation breakthroughs.”

Again I must add a caveat. In his book The Innovator’s Dilemma Clayton Christensen warns companies about listening to their customers. In a interview with Jena McGregor, he explains why he offered that caution. [“Clayton Christensen’s Innovation Brain,” BusinessWeek, 15 June 2007]. McGregor writes:

(Mc) “In The Innovator’s Dilemma you warn that the maxim ‘staying close to your customers’ can lead you astray. Wouldn’t a cursory reading of the book say ‘don’t listen to your customers?’

(C) “You’re exactly right. The cursory reading is ‘don’t listen.’ The deep reading is you have to be careful which customers you listen to, and then you need to watch what they do, not listen to what they say. … If you understand the job, the opportunities to differentiate are just extraordinary.”

Customers can be helpful; but, Christensen’s message is that actions speak louder than words. Daniels’ next “C” is context. She writes:

“3. Context Rich — Information is essential for innovation. Our study showed that businesses that use innovation as a competitive advantage put lots of effort into developing formal and informal systems for collecting information and free-flowing it throughout the workforce. Their knowledge management systems include advanced forms of application sharing, document sharing, collaborative workplace design and wiki group editing.”

Creative people are curious people. Expose them to new ideas and their juices start flowing. They simply can’t help themselves. In fact, Daniels’ next tactic recommends fostering that curiosity.

“4. Curious — Innovative leaders encourage their employees to question authority, to question their assumptions, to ask why, why not and what if? These leaders also question their own assumptions to be sure they’re open to others’ opinions. They make it clear to everyone that the company values experimentation. One way in which they demonstrate this is giving employees opportunities to pursue their ideas on company time and with company resources.”

This suggestion deserves another caution. Companies are in business to make a profit and activities pursued on company time should be focused on that goal. Andrew Hill writes, “Applied loosely, these suggestions would be a licence for laxity. Companies need to focus.” [“The tight controls needed for creativity,” Financial Times, 30 May 2011] Daniels’ next tactic involves confidence building.

“5. Confidence Building — Our research shows that businesses that excel at innovation actively increase their employees’ capabilities and self-esteem. They continually improve employees’ skills with training that combines live instruction and on-line learning, with employer-paid college courses, job rotation, mentoring programs and stretch assignments. Their learning initiatives cover both technology and the management skills needed for selecting promising job candidates, onboarding them, assessing their performance, motivating them to be more productive and dealing constructively with performance shortcomings.”

In tough financial times, the kinds of activities that Daniels describes are often the first to be halted. Long-term benefits are traded for short-term savings. Smart companies know that their most valuable assets are their best employees. Daniels’ final “C” is involves challenges. She writes:

“6. Challenging — Most business leaders focus on making their companies function efficiently. Innovative leaders focus on meeting challenges. A six-year study by faculty at Harvard Business School and Brigham Young University concluded that a key characteristic of these leaders is their willingness to challenge the status quo. Our research confirmed this. Leaders of innovative companies constantly challenge the entire workforce to reach for new heights. They set ambitious (though achievable) goals, both short- and long-term, within a particular unit and company-wide. Employees who meet their goals are commended publicly, sometimes by senior executives. Even small wins are celebrated.”

Working with purpose is always a good thing. Employees that don’t understand how their job benefits the company or fits into the big picture are likely to be discontent. Employees who can be excited about overcoming challenges will look forward to coming to work and are unlikely to seek employment elsewhere. Daniels concludes:

“Ongoing innovation happens only when there’s a living, breathing innovation culture. Leaders who create and nurture this culture will be rewarded with both game-changing breakthroughs and ongoing smaller-scale improvements that cumulatively bring big gains.”

If your creative juices are low and you need a boost, seeing what young innovators are up to is one way of rejuvenating your creative energy. Loz Blain writes, “The James Dyson Awards for young inventors are always a treasure trove of fresh ideas and up-and-coming innovators.” [“Eight young inventors give us a 2-minute elevator pitch,” Gizmag, 30 July 2011]. Blain explains that “the James Dyson Award is an international event that brings together products and inventions from young creators all over the world.” The article discusses eight Australian finalists for the James Dyson Award and provides videos of their elevator pitches. It’s not too difficult to guess that these designers are from Australia since two of the three top award winning designs involve ocean activities. The three top award winners’ elevator pitches are found below.

Bronze Prize: Christina Heggie’s Mass Rescue Board

Silver Prize: Chris Fox’s 9th Life

And the winner, from Sydney, was Joshua Sunghoon Mun’s Liquid Nitrogen carrier – a product the judges said ‘took an everyday, often overlooked problem and applied research, design and innovation to provide a sound solution.’ Joshua and a few of the other candidates will go on to the international round of the Dyson awards, vying for a UKP20,000 prize, split between the designer and their university or institution.”

My personal favorite was not awarded one of the top three spots; but, Ed Linacre’s AirDrop Irrigation system was given a “Highly Commended” prize.

Innovators like those shown above (as well as the other four innovators whose elevator pitches were not shown — but are worth watching), lead me to the conclusion that innovation is alive and well. To ensure that these young people continue to demonstrate their creativity, they need to find companies that foster a culture of innovation (or they need to start such companies themselves). On that point, I agree entirely with Sharon Daniels.