By Andrew Maxwell
In a recent interview with Rick Drennan, the editor of the Mississauga Business Times, I was asked to explain the relevance of innovation to businesses operating in Mississauga. I made the comment that if you are not innovating your business, then someone else is. I suggested that more innovative companies created better solutions, better services, and ultimately better performance.
However, as innovation involves risk and the possibility of failure, Rick asked about attitudes to risk. I suggested that the risk of innovating, should be compared against the risk of not innovating, and that the risk of not innovating could lead your business, however successful, to long-term failure (or acquisition by more innovative companies).
Rick decided to lead the front-page story with the headline “Innovate or Die?” which at first surprised me. However, upon reflection, I began to see parallels with “Eat or Be Eaten” (Phil Porter, 2000), and reflected that in my experience more innovative companies are the usually the acquirer, rather than the acquiree.
The problem is, that while many companies espouse the need for innovation, they struggle to implement innovation, either because they are risk averse, or have processes and systems designed to protect their existing businesses, rather than to innovate their future.
In reality, organizations are designed to achieve a certain level of innovation, and changing this to increase innovation rates can require fundamental changes in the business that can damage the existing business. As a result, I suggest that companies recognize their own limitations and constraints to decide if they simply cannot innovate, are willing to change their internal processes, or can collaborate with third parties who can innovate on their behalf.
We have introduced a new certification course at the University of Toronto, School of Continuing Studies, “The Foundations of Innovation Management” to help companies identify the innovation challenges facing their businesses, and develop appropriate innovation processes to help implement innovation processes.
We launched an introduction to the course at a half-day conference in Toronto last month (www.innovationcentre.ca) and discussed both the innovation imperative, and the importance of seeing innovation as a process. The course is designed to change the mindset around innovation from product innovation in a small part of the company, to business innovation throughout the organization. The development of an innovation process helps both capture ideas inside the company and implement them, and as a result impact the bottom line. Importantly we focus not only on product innovation, but also process, service and business model innovation, all of which can increase company revenues and profitability.
One of my colleagues in the design of Foundations program highlighted an insightful example from their period as a senior executive involved in innovation and productivity improvement at Royal Plastics. He used the example that Royal Plastics adopted innovative production processes that allowed them to produce molded plastic components at lower cost than their major competitors. This competitive advantage built economies of scale for the company, which both improved cost (and hence financial) performance and encouraged the company to increase innovation levels. They created a virtuous cycle of innovation and productivity improvement that led to cost reductions that allowed them to become a dominant player in the industry, and acquire both market share and competitors. In other words, they put themselves in the position of eating rather than being eaten.
The Foundations of Innovation Management course (http://learn.utoronto.ca/bps/imc.htm) is designed to help people in small, medium, and large companies increase the rate of innovation in their businesses. First, it challenges assumptions about innovation that have inhibited companies from being more innovative. The most important observation, from examining innovation rates in companies, is that once the imperative of increasing innovation rates is established, the most important issue is that of introducing a more formal innovation process which can gather innovative ideas, select those worthy of consideration and implement those most likely to improve the bottom line, or enhance company value.
The creation of a more innovative company requires not only the creation of an environment and culture that successfully stimulates new ideas, but where those ideas are assessed through an open communication process, and the more promising ones implemented (at least in a pilot). In addition, the company must constantly review the process to identify opportunities for process improvement, and specifically to learn from failure.
Finally, outcomes from innovation initiatives must be visible, and used as a catalyst to stimulate further rounds of innovation. In my next blog, I will talk about some of the challenges of increasing innovation rates in companies, if you would like to find out more about the course, please check the link. http://learn.utoronto.ca/bps/imc.htm
Andy is currently working at the Canadian Innovation Centre and pursuing a Ph.D. in the area of new venture creation at the University of Waterloo. In his spare time, he enjoys teaching technology entrepreneurship at UTM and the University of Waterloo.
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