4 Week Old Wants To Be Held All The Time Staying Competitive: How Great Companies Innovate

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Staying Competitive: How Great Companies Innovate

It was not so long ago that large companies create products for their customers to have the benefit of a 3-year product life cycle. Today to remain competitive companies have about 6 months to develop and go to market with improved product features and / or new products.

The race to stay competitive has a significant impact on the bottom line; if companies do not get it right they risk losing market share, and for publicly traded companies that is equal to declining market confidence and declining share prices; Research in Motion (RIM) is a case in point. To be fair RIM for a long time Blackberry held 100% of the smartphone market, so really there was nowhere to go but down with respect to market share.

So how do companies stay competitive? How to innovate?

A few basic innovations;

  • Innovation can be a product or a process
  • Innovation solves a social, economic or business problem
  • Innovation does not always have to create wealth.

Over the past several weeks, I have had the privilege and opportunity to meet with some of the most innovative companies, including Open Text Corporation, GE, Xerox, Roxul and Desire2Learn. It is thanks to the many people at each of these companies who have provided insight into their own processes that allow me the opportunity to shed light on the topic of enterprise-level innovation. My own involvement with the RBC Next Great Innovator competition also provided insight.

1) 20% Rule

We know Google’s 20% rule. Google employees are encouraged to spend 20% of their time working on something company-related but interesting to them. There are some great products that come out of this 20% rule.

2) Managers are not custodians

In every company we spoke to, one common theme emerged, Managers are NOT custodians. All these companies have various tools in place to ensure a system of open communication and sharing of ideas. From centralized whiteboards, online forums and wikis, to a simple company suggestion box, employees didn’t have to pass their ideas to managers before pitching it to executives.

Managers protect their territory and their role in the company. Sometimes a manager cannot see the long-term benefits an innovation will have for the company as a whole.

Benefits: One person’s idea can trigger the imagination of another person who reads it. Suddenly the company has a team of people who want to work on the idea or, this single idea can be morphed into a series of new products or processes.

3) Demo Camps

An extension of 20% time, whiteboards and forums; companies hold a showcase (once every 6 months) where individuals or teams can present their ideas. Whether the concept is mocked up or presented as a working prototype, the entire company has a chance to see what’s happening in the trenches.

4) Internal competition

A number of companies compete internally; process or product innovations are presented to decision makers, C-level execs. Yes, winners walk away with a prize, some companies are giving away tablets and checks. A check in hand, recognition of hard work, the chance to see their ideas implemented, these are all great motivators for employees. What is a few thousand dollars and a seed if the innovation generates profit for the whole company?

5) Ask the customer

This one should be a no-brainer; Sorry for the colloquialism, but there really are too many companies that are supposed to know what works for their customers. Get the customer involved, listen to their requests, demands, and hold focus groups; let them touch it, feel it, use it and give feedback. Don’t have a working prototype yet? Bring the customer in, show them what you’re proposing, and ask them if it works for them. It’s amazing how many companies assume they know it all. Supposed to be a donkey from U and ME (Sorry to have to throw this out there for those who haven’t heard it, or don’t remember it.)

6) External competition – fresh perspective

What a great tool for companies to innovate. Create a competition; open it to the public, to schools or both; Suddenly you have a whole new perspective on your business with the added bonus of new product/service offerings. New insights into old ideas that have been sitting in language on a shelf somewhere; new direction that no one has had time to realize since their heads are down working in the same old world machine. Apart from these two small benefits, other benefits exist; 1) a new group of potential employees; 2) increase exposure for your business and existing products/services; 3) increased publicity, a great way to incorporate social media into your business and 4) goodwill.

Canadian companies are losing the innovation battle. What are you going to do about it? There State of the Nation in 2010 report published by the Science, Technology and Innovation Council of Canada, Canada is lacking a “culture of innovation” in business. The report first published in 2009, compares metrics in 4 major categories, 1) Resources for R&D, 2) Business Innovation Indicator, 3) Knowledge Development and Transfer Indicator and 4) Talent Indicator. With few exceptions, parameters are not positive; Canadians are less innovative than last year or the year before.

It’s time to hit the ground running! Stop complacency and deliver on the limitless potential your company has to offer.

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