Innovate or wither Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2008

While some executives debate the meaning of innovation, many have made it one of their top three initiatives for 2008.

The use of innovation as a competitive advantage continues to evolve as more companies tap their own creativity, think differently than competitors, and build new models and ways of doing business. Companies who successfully tap their creative capital have discovered that innovation really is a cultural attitude. But to build this culture, a number of obstacles may need to be overcome.

“The top three barriers to innovation are resistance to change, lack of time and fear of risk-taking,” says Dr. Gary Selden, associate professor of marketing and professional sales, Center for Business Innovation and Creativity, Center for Professional Selling, Coles College of Business, Kennesaw State University. “It’s up to the CEOs and presidents to remove these barriers and supply the driving force behind the innovation culture in their companies.”

Smart Business recently learned more from Selden and Professor Harry Vardis, co-director, Center for Business Innovation and Creativity, about how to look inward for creativity and how to create a culture to mitigate the employee fear factor.

Why is it important to mine your staff for new ideas?

In today’s hypercompetitive environment, the only real advantage may be to be more creative than your competition, not only around new products but also around processes, ways to go to market, positioning, project management and more. People are the key to creative solutions. What better source for new ideas than your own staff, people who understand who you are and what you do well? A good example of how to mine your staff for new ideas is Cargill, a meat packing company. Cargill is in a business that, you would think, might be a difficult incubator for employee creativity. But it is a very innovative company. The company listens and selectively harvests the best ideas from their staff. This simple act is responsible for ownership, support and newness coming from inside the box and not always from the outside.

What can go wrong if employees’ innovation and creativity are hindered?

You will wither away and die. Innovate or die is a very appropriate way to explain what happens to companies who are not willing to innovate. You can get innovation from outside resources, but you better make sure they have your best interests in mind.

In companies where employee innovation is hindered, research shows innovation initiatives will be limited. People need to grow in order to meet the needs of corporate America. They also need to grow to meet their own needs, and their greatest potential for growth is through utilizing their creativity for new ideas and to take new approaches to living.

What are the consequences if an employee’s ideas don’t work out?

Who says that all of an employee’s ideas are going to be right and that all ideas work out? Thomas Edison failed a thousand times before he invented a light bulb. His comment after a thousand failures was, ‘Well, now we know a thousand ways not to make the light bulb.’ The point is not whether the ideas work out or do not work out; the point is that by listening to ideas and by collecting them, you can select those that might work. And then, through trial and error or some other process, and by using the right criteria, you can arrive at the winners.

How do you entice employees to come forward with ideas?

Our most recent study has a lot on this.

You’ve got to make sure you have the right culture and a CEO who is willing to listen. Next, you’ve got to have a willingness to take risks, and a process that rewards and recognizes the value of an employee who has a good idea. It’s also crucial to foster support from your group and hire people who are creative. Companies seeking the innovation culture must have metrics in place to measure the results of innovation efforts and also must utilize good communication models. You should have lines of communications established at all levels to deal with risk or failures so your employees do not feel threatened.

How can innovation and creativity enhance a company?

Creativity and innovation are now core competencies in growing organizations. It helps to think of creativity as the process and innovation as the end product. If by enhancing we are talking about making the company richer, here is the question to ask yourself that will provide the answer: Can you survive by always selling the same identical product without any innovation? Most likely, you will say no. So you have a choice — either you innovate or someone else will do it for you, and then you’ll have to copy that innovation. So innovation is the survival lifesaver of a company and also the way to move into the future. Creativity is merely the engine that gets you moving.

DR. GARY L. SELDEN is associate professor of marketing and professional sales, Center for Business Innovation and Creativity, Center for Professional Selling, Coles College of Business, Kennesaw State University. Reach him at gselden@kennesaw.edu or (770) 499-3191. PROFESSOR HARRY VARDIS is co-director, Center for Business Innovation and Creativity. Reach him at (404) 285-1086 or hvardis@kennesaw.edu.