How Stephan Liozu drives leading edge innovation at ARDEX Americas Featured

8:01pm EDT August 31, 2011
How Stephan Liozu drives leading edge innovation at ARDEX Americas

When Stephan Liozu came to ARDEX Americas three years ago as president and CEO, he was given a big, fancy, corner executive office. Nowadays, he doesn’t use it. As the global leader for strategic innovation, he decided that his big office could be put to better use. The executive office got a complete overhaul and now goes by the name of Innovation Station.

“I felt that we needed to have a space in the business to really promote that innovation by discovery,” Liozu says. “You cannot do that in a dead-boring conference room sitting on leather chairs. You have to do that in a space that is colorful.”

The manufacturer of building materials has 260 employees in Pittsburgh and 1,850 worldwide and is known as an industry leader in innovation. Liozu, who has a master’s degree in innovation management and is halfway through a doctorate in innovation, wasn’t satisfied with that status, so he opened a competition for the new name of his former office to help further the company’s innovation.

“[In April,] I decided to leave my executive office, and we created — in a big space that was not very useful to the company — we created an innovation station,” Liozu says. “This is a creative space where we have a special paint on the wall that you can write on, we have foosball, basketball, music and people go in there and brainstorm and they just create ideas. We have nice paintings of Einstein’s head on the wall, there are red chairs, there is a lava lamp, and there are tools and small tables, but we want people to move. We want people to dance, we want people to just create and play basketball. As they do this they are emotionally connected to the team there and to the process of, ‘OK, there is no barrier, there is no hierarchy, there is no corporate logo, it is just a space where I can freely express myself.’ I felt we needed this to be able to go to the next step of our creativity potential.”

It is through initiatives like the Innovation Station that Liozu works to improve the ways the organization becomes a better company all around. Here’s how he focuses on innovation throughout the business.

Always be innovating

More and more, the name of the game is to constantly reinvent your company, constantly bring new technologies to the market and stay one step ahead of the competition. To do this, you must look to innovate in every opportunity.

“Companies most of the time innovate because they are forced to,” Liozu says. “Maybe there is a disruption happening in the market or there is a competitor that is making things more challenging and your costs are going through the roof. You constantly have to disrupt your organization, and you have to create some gaps and reinvent yourself through innovation, whether you face a crisis or whether you’re very successful. That’s the best time to be investing in innovation is when you’re successful, not waiting for the crisis to come.”

Too often, companies wait for the market to offer opportunities or necessary times when innovation and change must occur. You have to get your company to look for innovation when things are normal in the market.

“It’s a little bit of a challenge that I’m trying to change the culture to be not reactive to events in the market but to be more proactively innovating whether we need it or not,” Liozu says. “It’s that constant change in innovation and disrupting the organization and introducing new technology when customers weren’t expecting it. It’s challenging because you have to bring your whole organization on board and you have to convince them that everything is going fine. But imagine five years from now, there’s going to be a crisis, you’re going through cycles, you have ups and downs, so eventually there is going to be a crisis. Let’s not stay still; let’s project ourselves and find out how we can avoid the crisis and make the changes now but control the changes. It’s what we call a revolutionary change management. You create your own mini-revolutions and not wait for the markets to dictate when you have to change.”

To get your company to adapt to a new way of looking at innovation, you need to start with the leadership.

“First of all, you need creative leadership,” he says. “You need a lot of creativity, and you need to embrace creativity. You need to promote it and let people give you ideas. So there is a lot of ideation process and ideation culture you have to introduce — brainstorming sessions, discussions with customers or customer observations. You have to constantly be scanning the market, opening your ears and listening.

“The second thing is you really have to embrace complexity. The world has become more complex, and you have to leverage that complexity by bringing in solutions that are simple but innovative. The best companies that are succeeding right now are the ones that really understand the complexity, capture the opportunities that come from complexity and fully leverage them. You do this through innovation and creating systems, creating solutions and creating ventures.”

In order to constantly innovate, you need to look for opportunities through design and discovery within your organization.

“You have to do a little bit of both innovation by design and innovation by discovery,” he says. “You really have to constantly be redesigning the organization internally to match the customer voice and match the trends that are coming — being able to design things very well — designing systems, designing solutions, designing approaches, but at the same time, put yourself in discovery mode. You know what you know, but you don’t know what you don’t know. You have to go out there and try to discover new things, so you need both design and discovery in the innovation process.”

Innovating on a year-round basis can be disruptive and a challenge to get used to for companies that follow a routine. You have to be willing to embrace disruption.

“I call myself an agent of disruption,” Liozu says. “One of my favorite sayings is, ‘When you are at peace, prepare for war and vice versa.’ You have to constantly challenge yourself to look at where you are going 10 years from now. Everything may be fine right now, but how do we already work on technologies that may not be needed now but may be needed five years from now? It’s really avoiding the ups and downs, avoiding the reaction, be more productive and systematic in your innovation approach and invest in the right programs. It comes back to constantly reinventing yourself and your value proposition.”

Be serious about innovation

Reinventing yourself and how you do business can be very beneficial, but you need to measure your progress in innovation and invest in it for it to truly be successful.

“We just measured our innovation culture worldwide,” Liozu says. “We just did a very unique survey to measure innovation culture, which is fascinating, and we are learning quite a bit. We developed an innovation cockpit with key performance indicators that we have in there — number of new products created, number of ideas in the bank, etc. We measured things like market orientation, willingness to take risks, importance to customer, voice of the customer and the questionnaire was about 12 minutes with a list of items that you have to agree or disagree with, and you have to respond to those truthfully.”

Having a system in place to measure your progress in innovation will help your company continue to improve. You have to come up with key indicators that you measure on a regular basis.

“You definitely want to have key performance indicators just on innovation,” he says. “Those are very important, and you want to measure those every six months. That way you have annual measurements to say whether you are making progress or not making progress. The numbers speak for themselves, and you can’t hide anything from the numbers. If you really want to change the culture, measuring it is the best way to do so.”

Measuring is just one aspect of staying on top of innovation progress. You have to be willing to make a full commitment to it and designate the necessary resources to it.

“Another key measurement is the investments you’re going to make and these investments have to be made,” Liozu says. “A lot of companies decide to innovate and be more innovative and give them $2 to do it. You need funds, you need investments, you need obviously the payback for it, but you have to show sustainable investments. It’s not short term. You may introduce one or two products from a short-term brainstorming, but at the end of the day, if you want to do that consistently, systematically at the corporate level, globally and locally, you need the right people, the right process and the right investments to do it.”

Part of those investments in innovation is training your staff on better processes and the tools necessary to be on the cutting edge.

“If you’re really serious about innovation, you create dedicated resources to people who are trained in innovation,” he says. “You cannot improvise. If you really study innovation, you really study the tools to innovate, the processes, how to do this, how to do that, how to measure. You cannot just take a guy who has been in marketing and say, ‘Now you’re the innovation manager.’ You have to send that person to a class or to a course. You have to train your people on that.”

Innovate the whole business

Innovation is a complete improvement process of everything you do. It isn’t enough to just look at ways to innovate your products. You need to take a deep look at everything within your organization.

“That’s why you need the culture,” Liozu says. “You need the climate and the culture. You need to communicate a lot and remind people of innovation day in and day out. You have to be serious at multiple levels. One is the infrastructure. Secondly, you have to give them the culture and the climate to be able to share their ideas. And then you have to do something with these ideas. So once you get the ideas, you have to reward the best ones and then work on them and launch them.”

A lot of companies want to appear innovative and will ask for ideas, but then just sit on them.

“That’s the best way to really demotivate people to share that with you,” he says. “You have to execute on these ideas. That’s the way you reach all the way to the front-line people from the top throughout the organization to get people onboard. If you do that, people will know that you are serious. You tell them it’s not just product innovation, its process. How can I do my job better? How can I service my customers better? How can I do this XYZ? How can I cut costs? You have to encourage everybody to share their ideas.”

To get your employee’s creative juices flowing, you have to give them a culture that encourages them to think about new ideas.

“You need to give people a place to be free from the routine and regular noise associated with the business and they will be able to come up with ideas,” Liozu says. “The No. 1 thing is you need to create a culture. You need a culture and a climate that embraces that message that we are going to change for the best. Within that culture, you need to bring in a lot of time that will allow people to brainstorm, and they have the will to brainstorm because they understand why. You allow people to fail, and you celebrate the failures and understand why you failed and you learn from that and do better next time.”

A culture that supports innovation is crucial to developing those processes into your company’s daily fabric, but you also need someone to lead that charge.

“Obviously, you need a champion,” he says. “At the end of the day, every business manager, every CEO and president, should be acting and leading as a chief innovation officer. Because fundamentally if you can do that constantly and if you’re willing to reinvent your business proposition — the value you bring to the market — it has to come from the top office, otherwise change is not going to happen. Some people are too risk averse and some companies are too risk averse and it paralyzes the creative potential of their people. You need the top guys to be the champion of change or the champion of innovation.”

HOW TO REACH: ARDEX Americas, (724) 203-5000 or www.ardex.com/default.asp

The Liozu File

Stephan Liozu

President and CEO

ARDEX Americas

Born: France, became a U.S. citizen in 2009. He has lived in seven different countries.

Education: MBA in marketing from Cleveland State University; master’s degree in innovation management, University of Toulouse. He is trilingual, speaking French, English and Spanish. He also knows a little Italian and Portuguese.

What was your first job, and what did you learn from that experience?

My very first job was when I was 15 and I was selling doughnuts on the beach at Med Sea Resorts in Argeles-sur-Mer. It was brutal. The sun was brutal, and I had competition on the beach. I had six guys selling doughnuts next to me. It really taught me to be resilient and to go out there and try to find a way to differentiate.

What is the best business advice that you’ve ever received?

I get a lot of my advice from books, because I do quite a bit of reading. The one piece of advice I really like is when you have peace prepare for war and vice versa. That is from ‘The Art of War.’ When you’re in business, you really have to constantly be ready for the next round. This is what I really focus on.

What was your favorite name for the Innovation Station?

I liked the Creative Space or ARDEX Innovation Center, but I didn’t win.

If you could do something dangerous without any consequences, what would you do and why?

I would go into space and look at the Earth from up there. The universe is a beautiful design and it makes you wonder how all of this is just suspended. We are in this universe and I would like to see it closer. It’s fascinating to me how we are here on a planet among other planets in the universe that we barely know.