ITB: Is there recognition of the importance of innovation in the business world?Pliniussen:Queen’s has a core course in creativity and innovation as part of our MBA program. Some schools have an elective … but to my knowledge we’re the first business school in Canada that has a core course. If everyone is saying we need people who are more innovative and creative, then you look at the curriculum, are you showing them how to or training them how to?ITB: What are some ways that companies can innovate, especially if they’re using the same tools as other companies?
Pliniussen: One way companies innovate is by making a decision that everything is open for review, so there is nothing that’s sacred. Typically when we come into a culture we have rules and procedures and processes, and we just assume they’re there and they must work. One way you can innovate is what we call operational innovation, [where you look] at new ways of filling orders, new ways of training people, new ways of providing customer service – anything the organization performs. Certainly product design is one we’re familiar with – everyone loves the iPod and nano because you look at them and say, “is this ever cool.” That didn’t just happen – [Apple] came up with a new way to develop products that had a lot to do with tapping into people’s opinions and desires, so they changed their market research and product design process and ended up coming up with these products that are selling 80,000 units a day.
ITB: How do you get people to do that?
Pliniussen: The next challenge is, how do you generate the ideas? You have to show people how to see problems or challenges in new ways to escape the bounds of conventional thinking. You have to be able to look at your office processes – the way you do e-mails, the way you conduct meetings – and look at them in different ways, and you can train people to do that. The second is: How do you determine which of the ideas are worth pursuing? And that’s the difference between an idea and an opportunity. At some point you have to have a filter, and then you’ll come up with a handful of possible innovations. The third thing you have to do for successful innovation is have the ability to convince the people with the money and the power to give you resources to try it.
ITB: Why should or shouldn’t companies be focused on competitive advantage?
Pliniussen: You shouldn’t focus exclusively on competitive advantage, but you absolutely have to be aware of what’s going on in the industry you’re trying to compete in.
ITB: What should companies focus on, then, to differentiate themselves from their competitors?
Pliniussen: Ultimately why you’re in business is to sell more stuff to more people at a profit. In order to compete you need to be able to do two things simultaneously: One is constantly come out with products that the market wants and the second is to do that in such a way that your expenses don’t exceed your profit. That’s why innovation can focus on both areas: the products and services, which generate your revenue, but also how you manage and run your business, which accounts for your expenses.
ITB: Are there ways that companies can encourage their employees to think outside the box?
Pliniussen: You want to think outside the box but you also have to think inside the box. Thinking inside the box deals with making sure you really understand how the company works. Many of us in large organizations are unaware of how the box works. Thinking outside the box means you need a diverse source of ideas. One way you can improve the process for generating ideas is to set up groups of people from diverse parts of the company. If you’re trying to come up with a way to improve customer service, you’d want to talk to sales reps, but maybe you should also have people from finance, from accounting, from IT, because they would each see a different part of it, as opposed to just having the customer service team deal with their own challenges. If you want to take it from gold to platinum, then you also bring in people who are perhaps former customers, current customers, people who have nothing to do with your business at all. The more diversity you have in this input stage, the wider a variety of creative suggestions you will get. And the more creative suggestions you have, the more likely you’ll have the a-ha. One thing we don’t do very well at all in our education system is encourage, make time for and give marks for that step I just described.
ITB: Is this starting to shift and we’re entering into a new phase of innovation?
Pliniussen: I don’t think it’s new, it’s just becoming more accepted. Many of the companies that we hear a lot about such as the Apples, the Googles, they want very bright people, and they also want you to be able to get along with people. What we find is the younger the people are, the more likely it is they’re not afraid to be out there, outlandish, radical – they’d rather be a pirate than someone in the navy.