Monday, December 05, 2005

Innovation is the lifeblood of the small-to-medium technology businesses that drive our local economy.Charles V. ZehrenNewsday, December 4, 2005

But owners and managers of such concerns often lose sight of that fundamental truth. They fall into the trap of focusing on perpetuating financial results, winning the next contract or shoving another order out the door instead of meeting customer expectations.

To retain and hone the competitive edge that enabled them to survive and prosper in the first place, companies must resist the urge to cut costs and spend time and money on developing, implementing, maintaining and monitoring a concrete plan that promotes innovation.

That's according to David Wilemon, a professor of Innovation Management and Entrepreneurship at the Martin J. Whitman School of Management at Syracuse University. Wilemon has advised a slew of corporations and organizations, including Apple, General Electric and NASA.

In a recent interview, e-mail exchanges and an article in Whitman's Fall 2005 magazine, Wilemon said that to triumph over today's brutal economic realities, business operators must create a clear, useful process for allowing innovation to flourish.

Bolstering training, reorganizing or throwing more staff at product development will achieve limited results.Begin by asking yourself, does your company suffer from innovation deficit disorder?Symptoms include stagnation, a scarcity of new products or services, a lack of growth and profits, slow development cycle times, projects delivered late and over budget, conflict over innovation failures, and missed market opportunities. Check for customer dissatisfaction, low employee morale, loss of valued personnel and "systems overload."

If the answer to more than a few of these is "yes," savvy executives should then be asking themselves:What will happen to my company if we simply keep doing what we have been doing and don't innovate?What am I personally doing that gets in the way of innovation? Am I dominating meetings? Am I freezing out ideas from employees and customers?What myths am I perpetuating that block innovation and shelter us from reality? That our market will last forever? That we are the leaders in this industry? That the Chinese won't affect us?

While painful, there is a cure, Wilemon said.To begin with, consider calling a "time-out." Step to the sidelines and ask if the company is stuck in a rut doing what it has always done. Routine profits could evaporate literally overnight if you fail to innovate. "A major barrier to innovation is success," Wilemon said.

To break out of the cycle of self-perpetuation, Wilemon advocates that CEOs bring in from the outside a neutral person they trust to walk the management team through the process of creating a system to promote innovation and track the results."If bosses do it themselves, the process shuts down quickly," Wilemon said. With an outsider, "participants are less likely to create defensive routines to protect their turf.

Denial of reality is the worst enemy of a company which needs to be innovative."Another step requires going through the hard process of establishing a compelling vision of the company's future. "If you have a vision, all your decisions can be measured against it," Wilemon said. "A vision of what the company wants to become acts as a magnet for the company's energy and aspirations."

What is the dominant logic or mindset of your organization? Are you saying: Let's let our competitors develop it first? Or saying: We created this market, so we know it better than anyone?Make innovation a priority companywide. But dedicate a portion of your budget to pay for a manager who will lead a team charged with administering the innovation, product development and new market identification process.

Everyone in the company should know who is in charge of innovation. The innovation initiative should be judged by how well it teases out productive ideas. Create small project teams to shepherd the development process. Keep "small experiments" going to test new products, technologies, markets, and processes. Companies may even want to consider passing up some of the same old orders to pursue new opportunities that could pay off more in the long run, Wilemon said.Then keep asking yourself: How many ideas are shelved, and why? How many employee ideas are "pacified" - "That's a great idea guys, we'll look into it" - but you never do and no one hears from you again.

"People don't suggest ideas internally unless they get feedback, and no feedback from you is saying, 'We don't count on you much,'" Wilemon said.Use the process to determine which ideas are actually developed on their own merits or are pushed ahead because of internal office politics or bureaucratic inertia. How many ideas are partially developed, then lose momentum because something powerful pops up on the problem-solving radar screen? Are you embracing fads or actually innovating?

Without a specific plan to move forward, innovation projects get pushed aside and companies fall behind the pace of their markets. Once that happens, they have trouble catching up."The easiest path for more companies is simply to continue doing what they've been doing," Wilemon said. "Yet such actions reach their limits, which then calls for drastic actions. What companies should strive for is a continuous stream of innovation to keep it ahead of competitors."

Copyright 2005 Newsday Inc.

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