Being Innovative When Your Business Isn't In A Crisis
Tampa Bay Business Journal, May 2002

Jack Hipple
Senior Consultant
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I know you think this is a trick question, but the reason it needs to be asked is that, all too often, the answer to this question is "only when my company or organization is in a crisis". The rest of the time our normal processes and procedures will solve all of our problems and address our challenges. Occasionally, this part-time interest in innovation and creativity surfaces as broad, enterprise-wide programs of one sort or another, which are disbanded after a few years time, sending a strong message throughout the organization that innovation and creativity are only needed when there is a crisis.

My experience in this area teaches me something quite different:

1. Innovation is required at all times within an organization. Its form and objective may change, but innovation and creativity cannot be turned on and off like a spigot without doing long term damage to the organization.

2. Individuals with a strong desire to create new businesses, new products, and solve tough problems are unique. With new assessment tools, these tendencies can even be measured. These same individuals are willing to take above average professional risk with appropriate reward and recognition.

Some senior industry leaders believe that innovation is of interest only when a company's sales and profits are growing (that's when we can afford it!) But let's stop and think about this a minute. When is innovation not required? When sales are dropping and customers are being lost? Is it just the recession or is it because our products or services are no longer meeting the customers' needs? What innovative ideas are needed to keep our customers excited? If it's truly the fault of a recession and everyone's business is deteriorating, then we need reductions in manufacturing costs and how we deliver the product or service to the customer. How do you do this without innovation and creative ideas?

If your company is a new start up, you are concerned about things like intellectual property and how to protect your investment. How do you do this without innovative thinking about new technology, how to broaden your intellectual property, or how to circumvent creatively someone else's patent?

If you are mature business and are selling mature products, what is going to replace your products? If you aren't thinking about this, I can assure you that someone else is. How do you do this type of out-of-the-box thinking? My point here is that I can't think of a business condition or situation where, in today's world of commonly available tools and markets, that an emphasis on innovation and creativity may is the ONLY distinguishing difference between long-term business success and failure. Even the current tools of corporate rage like Six Sigma, QFD, and Lean Manufacturing, when applied by everyone, will leave everyone at the same competitive point. It is only what we do things truly DIFFERENTY than everyone else that makes any difference in the long run.

If you believe that an emphasis on innovation and creativity is important at all times, then you can see the importance of not turning this effort on and off. Legends and stories within organizations live a long time and survive by many years any particular executive. If the last person who championed a new, breakthrough idea is no longer with the company, how many people will be interested in trying a risky new assignment? You will probably not even know how many people are interested because they will be afraid to even express interest. After a while, you will hear hallway conversation about "why don't we have any new ideas around here?" Then is the time to ask what happened to the last crop of innovators that worked here? What happened to the last person who thought DIFFERENTLY than the organization or who asked some challenging questions?

It is far more comfortable work environment, but far less productive long term, where everyone is a team player. When everyone thinks alike and acts alike, there is no difference in the results. Do you have the fortitude to challenge your organization ALL the time? Can you accept really new ideas and questions without punishing the messenger? If you can answer YES to these questions, you have taken the first step to insuring that you have a climate within your organization that will produce the innovation and creativity that you need for long term survival.