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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Innovation: Do it alone or with a team?

Innovation in business can be learned everywhere and from anyone. Even well known sportspeople have innovated and re-invented themselves into some big-time brand names. Skateboarder and founder, Birdhouse Skateboards, Tony Hawk is one such person.

He's built a huge business and made his fan base into his very own customer base. The people who used to look up to him as a champion skateboarder, now buy his line of skateboards and other skating related merchandise and he credits his team for this. He says they understand the skateborading culture and come up with ideas that enhance his business.

There are ofcourse, businesses which need to hire the right kind of people who can see eye to eye and this is something that CEO of Socratic Arts, Roger Schank endorses, that people should be allowed to work from wherever they feel most comfortable and if that is from home or a coffeeshop, then so be it. He told CNBC, "Sometimes, the best innovation happens over lunch."

This man's business idea may literally have popped up in his mind over just such a lunch! He was so frustrated over the huge margins that office supplies retailers charged that he decided to go into business for himself. Founder, Staples, Tom Stemberg says, "One of the things when we talk about innovation is that you kind of get the idea that innovation is about a bunch os people sitting in a room and thinking of ideas in a padded cell. In reality, most great ideas actually come from your customer."

"It's not just people sitting around but your people on the frontline, talking to your customer and in great organisations, that kind of feedback gets back to the core, and you get great new ideas and form great new businesses." He feels the real challenge is to make keep people motivated and retain them.

Schank feels that the big problem today, in large businesses is, when people making decisions are not aware of other people in the same organisation, making similar decisions. So, this lack of coordination results in what he calls "loss of corporate memory", in big organisations.

He also asks a vital question, that of "are we capturing the experience of the baby boomers who are being phased out?" These are the very people who may have a memory of a deal being made and they could pass on their experience and knowledge to the younger lot of workers coming in.

Stemberg also feels that people should not go into other countries assuming that theirs is the only way to go about innovation and that people other countries should just follow the same steps, because what works in the US may not work in England or Canada. Stemberg recalls that his store, Staples, took off in Europe, only when they were headed by Europeans, who obviously understood their core customers.

The real reason for innovation is the desire for growth and most companies have realised that, looking beyond their own walls (and sometimes beyond geographical boundaries) is necessary because usually if there is a problem, then it has been noticed that someone across the world had already spotted it and found a way to solve the problem, but the rest of the world is unaware about it!

So, some experts feel that innovation is really a collaborative sport. But Schank, ever the contrarian feels that it's not a team sport but "it's a sport driven by a common need to solve a problem and that's the only real issue you need to bond on."

He adds, "Innovation comes with experience. You need a guy with a big ego because he's the one who will come up with the big, new idea and then fight for it. The rest of the team should buy into the idea, so they can help him build on the idea."

Written for moneycontrol.com

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