Allan Wille: Four keys to staying ahead of the curve in business


Last year, I took on a new role as Klipfolio’s chief innovation officer. It’s an exciting change for me, and it’s allowing me to spend some time thinking about ​– and researching ​– the whole concept of innovation.

It’s a fascinating area, and I’ve learned two big lessons so far.

The first is that innovation is hugely important. Companies quite literally live and die by their ability to innovate.

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The second is that most companies equate innovation with mad scientists wearing lab coats. They don’t understand the process, and as a result aren’t deliberate about being innovative.

What I want to do in this column is to share what I’ve learned during the process of moving into my new role, and in particular I want to spell out how a company can make innovation a part of its culture.

What is innovation?

There are plenty of definitions of innovation, both for tech companies and for businesses in general. I like the simple approach taken by Bill Aulet, an MIT professor and managing director at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship. He says innovation, in the business sense, is an invention that generates value – or as he puts it, Innovation = Invention X Commercialization.

Innovation is a deliberate process that is the result of thought, planning and effort throughout an entire company. It’s a collective and collaborative effort, not the purview of a single person or division.

Innovation is not limited to science or business. It can happen in any field. But from a strict business sense, an innovation has to be something you can make money with.

Why innovation is important

You’d think that companies would spend time thinking about how they can innovate.

But the fact is, most don’t. Most get too caught up in running their business on a day-to-day basis to think about the future. Or they spend time and effort looking to improve existing products or processes instead of truly innovating.

There’s a danger in that approach. Not innovating threatens the survivability of any company.

Think of Kodak, Xerox or Blockbuster. They were big companies in their day, but they did not move with the times.

Companies need to anticipate trends and see how they can take advantage of them (or work around them). In fact, a company that wants to grow must innovate.

Innovation is not a one-shot deal. It’s about making sure you are always coming up with good ideas and implementing them. It’s about anticipating trends and linking innovation to survivability. And the only way to do that is to build a culture of innovation into your company. Innovation is everyone’s job.

Here’s how to create a culture of innovation:

Start with a mission statement

A mission statement is a long-term, strongly held belief about what the company needs to do to make the world a better place. It defines your purpose and helps explain why you do what you do. The mission statement cannot be product-centric; products and markets evolve, and your mission statement must transcend that.

Learn to observe

To be truly innovative, companies (and the individuals within them) have to pay attention to what is happening in the world around them.

That includes being able to observe mega-trends within society and the world as a whole, but also changes happening within their own industry and among their customers. For example, what hacks are your customers (or your employees) using to get around certain problems?

Be aware also of things happening in other industries and consider how they might be applied to yours. Look also for the unexpected.

Here’s an example. Percy Spencer was an American engineer working with radar in the 1940s. He noticed that microwaves from a radar set he was working on melted a chocolate bar he had in his pocket. He wondered whether microwaves could be used to cook food and soon began experimenting with popcorn and eggs. From that observation (and his subsequent experiments) the microwave oven was born.

Spencer was not the first person to notice that microwaves acted on food, but he was the first to follow through with experiments.

Turn observations into ideas

The next step in the process is turning observations into ideas for innovation – as Percy Spencer did.

This is where a company really has to be deliberate – for example, by setting up ideation or blue-sky days where you ask “what if” questions and consider realistic (or at least possible) future outcomes.

Don’t be afraid to get creative when speculating about where innovative ideas might lead in the future. Stay within the bounds of reality – no unicorns or flying elephants – but push the envelope where you can.

Everyone in the company must be involved in the generation of ideas; it can’t be dumped on just one person. I may be chief innovation officer, but what I’d really like is for someone else in the company – an intern, perhaps – to approach me and say: “I’ve observed X, and I think it’s something we can really learn from.”

Put worthwhile ideas into practice

Believe it or not, this is the hard part.

Why? Because people are often reluctant to adopt new and different ideas or ways of doing things. 

What every company needs is a way to push good ideas forward. One concept that caught my eye is the ‘squirmy no.’

If you present an idea and everyone says no, then the idea is probably not a good one. If everybody says yes, then the idea is probably not innovative enough.

What you want is what I’ve heard described as a ‘squirmy no,’ where people don’t necessarily agree, but it’s not an immediate no. If you get a squirmy no, you are probably on the right track.

Another problem with getting innovative ideas adopted is that there’s a measure of risk involved – and some people (think venture capitalists and investors) are going to be assessing how much risk they face if your ideas get implemented. The bigger the risk or disruption, the bigger the upside needs to be.

Innovative ideas, ultimately, are far too easy to kill. They need to be nurtured and protected.

It takes courage. It starts with a strong mission and a desire to choose the future. It’s about understanding the risk and opportunity and pushing past most of the naysayers. 

Allan Wille is co-founder and chief innovation officer of Klipfolio. He’s also a designer, a cyclist, a father and a resolute optimist.

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