Advice From 4 CEOs On Moving Innovation From Idea To Reality

Whether trying to better deliver bears or babies, businesses have to differentiate and make sure innovative ideas don't die on the vine. Here's how 4 executives have transformed their companies, as well as industries.

Innovation starts at the top. If the leader talks innovation, gives lots of examples, rewards attempts, and lionizes successes, the organization gets the message. There is more untapped innovation in most companies than there are mussels on the Santa Monica pier.

  • Innovation is an idea turned into reality. Creative ideas that are sketches on a pad, or the subject of unanswered e-mails are nothing. To innovate you must execute. And poor execution is not a reason to execute (as in terminate) the innovator or the idea.
  • The innovative company is always trying to improve. Leadership talks new products, new markets, new machines. The company budgets aggressively on research, engineering, customer contact, smart people, commercialization.
  • Match ingenious engineers, or development people, with genius marketing people. This is the most important rule for new product success.
  • Listen to customers.
  • Have a high tolerance for rule breakers, as it relates to innovation, but not for breaking the company’s culture rules.
  • If someone proposes a promising idea, assign the development of the idea to that person.

Below are comments from 4 CEOs of successful companies on how they usher innovation from idea to reality.  

The World Wants Its MTV

Bill Roedy, founding CEO of MTV International, on going global:

“We had this highly successful franchise, with lots of popular shows, but the content was all designed for the American market. If you are only targeting Americans, that’s fine. But if you are going to be global, you need to innovate your products to reflect and be relevant to local customers, especially with media. It’s not one cola or one burger, but instead a TV channel that reflects and respects local cultures. The brand name is the same, but innovation is needed to adapt the product to meet the differing consumer tastes in Brazil or India or South Korea.”

Differentiation is innovation. Your differentiation, your product or service point-of-difference, need not be “better” than a competitor’s, just different. The folks in your local breakfast spot who smile, are different than the bored, indifferent waitress down the street. You must differentiate your product, particularly if your competition is big and dominant.

Transforming Hospital Culture

Griffin Hospital is a small 160-bed community hospital. In each direction of the compass, just 12, or so, miles away, there is a major hospital. The people in the Griffin Hospital’s market area have the option to drive just a few minutes for care at large city hospitals, including the well-known Yale-New Haven; Griffin made listening to its patients its key to innovation.

Patrick Charmel, CEO of Griffin HealthServices, on the importance of listening:

“At the outset of my career, I knew intuitively what I now know empirically: talk to the consumer. The consumer is the inspiration for innovation. If you probe, and if you listen, the consumer will tell you what she likes, dislikes, her concerns. The consumer usually won’t give you the answers. Getting the answer is the job of the problem solver, not the problem sufferer.

Our first big differentiation at a time when our survival was dependent on our ability to differentiate our hospital from the six competing hospitals that surrounded us was inspired by talking to expectant mothers. They indicated that they did not want giving birth to be treated like a medical emergency or illness care event. Mothers did not want to be exposed to sick patients or the traditional hospital environment. They did not want the visitation rules that were standard protocol in hospitals. We changed everything.

We built a special entrance just for the mother and her family. We changed the maternity ward to look more like a home than a hospital. This was a radical change from how traditional maternity care was delivered.

Gone was the restrictive one-size-fits-all approach. It was replaced by a personalized approach based on patient empowerment and family involvement. Changes to the care environment included the creation of large private postpartum rooms with beautiful finishes and furniture, some with the country’s first queen-size hospital beds and Jacuzzis for pain relief in early labor. We made many other such consumer-centric changes. Most of our older, male, ‘that’s not the way it’s done’ doctors left. We replaced them with younger, more enlightened obstetricians. Our maternity business boomed, and we took what we learned to develop a patient-centered care model for the rest of the hospital.

To complete our transformation, Griffin collaborated with the Planetree organization, a not-for-profit founded by a patient dissatisfied with her hospital experience, to change the way hospitals and doctors interact with and care for patients. Griffin ultimately acquired the Planetree organization and has grown its membership organization and consultancy by helping hospitals transform their cultures to deliver true patient-centered care. Health care providers are now dealing with educated, engaged, informed consumers. Health care organizations that understand and respond to changing consumer expectations will be their industry’s new leaders. This understanding will be a game changer in health care.”

Become a Student of the World

Mark Dixon, CEO of Regus, on where to find new ideas:

“A big part of innovation is keeping your eyes open as you travel around the world, watching for new ideas, no matter where they may occur. Deliberately search for new and interesting ideas. As part of that search, talk and listen to everyone. If an idea is worth pursuing, start testing concepts, and test and review and adapt fast. Very fast. Review test results daily. Speed. Immediacy. Immediate execution of trials. Immediate results. Immediate adaptation. Once you’re ready to go, get the right people. And execute, execute, execute.”

Don't Be Afraid to Be Different

Maxine Clark, founder and CEO of Build-A-Bear Workshop, on sticking with it:

“When a 10-year old girl innocently asked, ‘Why can’t we make our own teddy bears?,’ the lightbulb flashed. My dream for Build-A-Bear Workshop was born. Every adult I asked about the idea said it would not work. But every kid asked, ‘When can I build my bear?’ Innovation is being different. And being different is the reason for our success. We didn’t invent the teddy bear: we invented how to personalize and sell more teddy bears and other furry friends business. We followed our dream and did so with true passion. Now we have over 400 stores worldwide, and 100 million furry friends adventuring around the globe. We are beary happy.”

Innovation is a sustaining factor in business. If a company fails to innovate, you can be certain a competitor will jump ahead, will change the way the old game was played. Somebody, somewhere, in a garage, or in a lab, or in a classroom, or homeless in a car, is working imaginatively, feverishly to make obsolete your product, your advantage. This somebody is unencumbered by your years of doing it your way; is not burdened with your investments in yesteryear equipment; is not concerned about failure.

Innovate or stagnate.

Differentiate or disintegrate.

Take your pick.

Excerpted from The Transformative CEO: Impact Lessons from Industry Game Changers by Jeffrey J. Fox and  Robert Reiss. ©2012, McGraw-Hill Professional; reprinted with permission of the publisher.

[Image: Flickr user Bill Salek]

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