BIZTIPS - April 20, 2008

Biz Tips: Innovation Drives Global Business Leadership

Sunday, April 20, 2008

“Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Who on earth would have said that 50 years ago, when big business was snapping up MBA’s and learning meant memorizing? Actually, Albert Einstein said it, believed it, and lived it.

This winter, when the World Economic Forum published its 2007-2008 “Global Competitiveness Report,” the U.S. was once again number one. Why? Certainly not because we’re financial geniuses – we had just managed to turned a little home mortgage repayment problem into a worldwide recession. No, we were first again largely for two reasons: size of market and ability to innovate.

So you say “Well China and India have even bigger markets than the U.S.” Exactly! That leaves innovation to keep us ahead of the rest of the world. The problem is that most of us don’t have a clue what we can do to keep that edge. (Hint –that’s because since we were little, creative kids, we’ve been taught NOT to innovate).

A recent workshop by Robert Newhart, CEO of the Innovation Center in Bend demonstrated that 1) innovation can be learned, 2) there are tools to create, capture, and use innovative ideas, and 3) you can not only foster innovation in your business, you can eliminate the enemies of innovation. Newhart works with companies worldwide to identify opportunities for innovation. He points out that not all innovations are game-changing (think iPod). Most are just incremental (e.g. product improvements) and some are substantial (e.g. Costco).

You can bring innovation home regardless of the type or size of your business. Use cell phones or inexpensive pocket recorders to capture ideas anywhere, anytime. Create a simple database to record those ideas. Tag each idea with keywords so you can find them by topic. Vote them “hot” or “not” at staff meetings. Ask outsiders (including kids) to look at your business in new ways. Talk about your mistakes and learn from them. Imagine what your best competitor might do to kill your business. Remember that the worst enemy of innovation is success.

Charles Darwin observed “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” And Jack Welch, the legendary CEO of General Electric, is credited with saying “If the rate of change outside your organization is greater than the rate of change inside your organization, the end is in sight.” Insure your business against that end. Innovate early, innovate often, innovate now.

Books including “The Tipping Point” and “Wisdom of Crowds,” and websites www.innovationcenter.org and www.ted.com are great starting points. Your Small Business Development Center has access to the Innovation Center’s “Free Radicals of Innovation” video and training materials.