The will to succeed Featured

9:36am EDT July 22, 2002

A quick tour of innovation practices across some of this year's winners easily reveals inspiring themes in how innovation plays out as a critical factor in business growth and development.

At construction industry service firm Fortney & Weigandt, promoting and providing incentives for innovation is a team effort. Profit sharing is leveraged to inspire boundless initiatives that are often more informally than formally organized. According to F&W's maverick innovator, Bob Fortney, "Our goal in life is to take each of the 200 parts of our business into continuous improvement on everything."

Innovation is a welcome strategy in this firm, especially as innovation so often implies risk taking. As Fortney puts it, "Risk taking is what we do. It's what our business is all about." From his perspective, why not focus risk-taking competencies on the very processes and systems that inspire the relationships that make up the heart and soul of the business.

Bill Zimmerman has done a yeoman's job of creating at Computer System Company the kind of new product incubator methodologies that have hatched several technical breakthroughs. By engaging both idea launch and feasibility teams, CSC has reinvented old equipment with new equipment capabilities through innovative engineering and software changes.

Many of the ideas bubble up from a culture infused with the momentum of continuous innovation success stories. In the dramatic cost savings from the equipment redesign, "the idea came from folks working on what we could do with the old equipment," Zimmerman says.

This innovative firm is not from the school where significant corporate initiatives are relegated to higher management altitudes. Instead, as Zimmerman states in one of this year's company newsletters, "We want our employees more involved in determining our future."

At SS&G, similar themes of unleashing ideas companywide are at play beneath the waves of innovation, propelling this self-reinventing firm to new industry shores.

"We encourage everyone to think in innovative ways about the business," says partner Gary Shamis.

Most of the company's new hires are from other professional firms rather than right out of school. Far from the usual NIH (Not Invented Here) management defensiveness, new recruits are encouraged to import best practices from previous work experiences. As the firm grows through mergers, the question, "What are you doing better?" evokes new approaches and a culture of innovative openness.

At SS&G, most innovation starts informally, then migrate to more formal teams that move innovation forward. Background to these efforts is the firm's achievement of being one of the first accounting companies to morph into a more broad base of financial services with a name that replaces owner monikers with an innovative brand featuring an equally broad appealing professional firm name.

Each of these stories demonstrates the ubiquitous edge innovation provides, whether the corporate environment is driven by technology, construction or professional services. Collaborative innovation -- even informally cultivated -- along with the refusal to restrict innovation to a single department or level, continues to be a common denominator in the impact innovation has on the primal triad of cost, quality and delivery. Jack Ricchiuto (jack@yournextinnovation.com) is a Cleveland-based management consultant.