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Innovation at Work

Canada’s biggest innovation problem is the least straightforward to solve.

When Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland called Canada’s underwhelming ability to innovate “the Achilles heel of the Canadian economy” in announcing the 2022 federal budget (which included $3 billion in new funding for the cause), she gave high-level voice to a longstanding frustration. 

For all our national assets—including excellent educational institutes, favourable global trade connections, and deep pools of skilled labour—Canadian companies have often struggled to translate good ideas into economic prosperity. The Conference Board of Canada ranked our nation 11th out of 16 comparable countries on its most recent Innovation Report Card, which benchmarks such metrics as R&D, funding and outputs. “In a knowledge-based, globally competitive economy,” the report reads, “Canadian businesses will need to make better use of the inputs and improve their ability to innovate to increase their domestic and global market shares.”

There are clear macroeconomic and competitive reasons for Canadian companies to improve their innovation capabilities, from international growth to talent acquisition to—in some cases—sheer survival. But how? 

Innovation is not a switch companies can simply turn on. It requires great ideas. It requires resources: money, technology and time. But perhaps most importantly, it requires a fertile climate: that is, organizational cultures in which creative problem-solving are encouraged and supported. “I don’t think you can force innovation,” says Erin Bury, Co-Founder and CEO of online will platform Willful. “But you can put the conditions in place to make it most likely to thrive.” 

Read on for four ways to build and grow cultures of innovation.

Cultivate curiosity 

Innovation doesn’t have to involve a big, bold new idea. “Eureka!” moments do happen, but in Bury’s opinion, smaller, iterative tweaks are just as valuable; the magic comes from recognizing the potential in what already exists. “It’s solving old problems in new ways,” she says. To wit: Willful didn’t invent wills; humans have been making them for hundreds of years. What the five-year-old startup did do was identify a new way to deliver the product to meet changing client needs. “Innovative thinking is all about coming at something with objectivity and without preconceived notions or biases,” Bury explains. 

Willful engages in rolling customer research, which means every week Bury and her team talk to people who have made a will or served as an executor. Questions cover not only what the company offers (How was your experience of using the platform?) but also, crucially, what it could offer (What do you feel was missing?). This, Bury explains, allows Willful to stay close to the problem it exists to solve and brings focus to brainstorming. “We’re not just sitting in a boardroom trying to innovate on what we think customers would want or innovating on tech solutions,” she says. “We’re understanding customer problems, and only by understanding those problems can we then develop better ways to solve them.” 

Curiosity is key, says Bury, whether you’re chatting with customers or strategizing internally. “It’s starting sentences with ‘Wouldn’t it be awesome if?’ instead of ‘We can’t do that because,’” she explains. “That kind of thinking can be a company’s main competitive advantage.”

Make it everyone’s job

Leaders are often tempted to limit innovation to a single job or team (see: a chief innovation officer or an innovation task force) or activity (see: an ad-hoc hack day or virtual “idea box”). This approach appeals because it creates highly visible signals of creativity and action—the sort of thing tech veteran Steve Blank dubbed “innovation theatre.” But innovation shouldn’t be contained by titles or tasks, says Shelli Baltman, Co-Founding Partner of The Idea Suite, a boutique qualitative research, strategy and innovation agency headquartered in Toronto: “You need to understand that innovation serves your business strategy. It’s not separate from your business strategy.”

Accountability to innovate should be baked into every job description—from intern to CEO, says Fiona Stevenson, Baltman’s partner at The Idea Suite. “If you’re not role modeling behaviours that encourage innovation, and structurally building those into the culture through how people are measured, how people are promoted and the expected behaviours and attitudes in the organization,” Stevenson says, “It’s all going to come crashing down.”

Practically, this can take many forms. One Idea Suite client has a rule that every employee must spend at least two hours each quarter actively engaging with another process in the company’s value chain—talking to customers directly, or meeting with those who do (e.g. riding along with delivery agents, hanging out in a different office). This shakes up complacency, fosters more holistic understanding of the needs of end-users and, as a result, tends to spark more effective and useful ideas. “So many positive benefits can come from it,” Baltman says, “And it costs nothing other than some time.”

Follow through

Coming up with good ideas is important. But developing and implementing those ideas is equally—some say more—important. That’s because the post-brainstorm phase is where good ideas often die on the vine for many businesses. “Innovation for the sake of innovation is useless,” says Oleks Osiyevskyy, an Associate Professor of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary. “It has to be disciplined and deliberate.” 

This means that all stages of innovation must be supported by processes and resources. People must be given time and space to ideate; as Osiyevskyy points out, “it doesn’t happen automatically.” Then, after a great idea arrives, the organization should have a clear process to refine it: to analyze the pros and cons, to strengthen weaknesses and to build business cases. And then, the company must devote budget and employees to executing the idea, even as a pilot. Ideally, Osiyevskyy says, the people workshopping and implementing an idea should be different from those who came up with it in the first place. 

This serves the dual purposes of aligning people to their strengths—“People who generate ideas might not be the right people to analyze them,” Osiyevskyy explains—while engaging more team members in the innovation process: “You cannot expect entrepreneurial energy to originate in one individual, no matter how smart.”

Don’t go it alone

When Alain Francq was running a nanotechnology institute at the University of Waterloo, he was often approached by global tech firms looking to collaborate. At first, he was surprised—why would these giants need to look elsewhere to develop new ideas? “They said to me, ‘We’re innovative, yes, but this is where new ideas come from.” As he saw these academic and corporate partnerships start to bear fruit, Francq—who is now Director of Innovation & Technology, The Conference Board of Canada—came to truly understand that innovation can’t happen in a vacuum: the more people you can let into the process, the better.

Companies should embrace partnerships with external organizations, Francq recommends. Colleges and universities are a fertile source of technologies and ideas that could use a bit of commercial muscle. Entrepreneurial incubators (such as Communitech and MaRS) can provide connections and resources; several large corporations now operate programs that offer the same, often with financial supports added in.And government-backed entities, including the federal government’s five Global Innovation Superclusters, can offer funding and help mitigate the risks of bringing something new to market.

Francq advises that businesses apply a spirit of collaboration internally, by ensuring that all new ideas benefit from the perspectives of people with different skills, backgrounds, and experiences. Not only does this prevent tunnel vision, he says: it also ensures “It’s not necessarily about applying the latest, coolest technologies,” Francq says. “It’s about bringing the right Canadians in the room, around the right problems, and then applying all the wonderful, creative thinking that comes from it.” 

This could, ultimately, be the differentiator that allows Canadian companies to unleash their untapped potential to innovate. “We need to look at innovation inclusively and differently,” Francq says. “That’s where we’re going to win.”

This content was produced in partnership with Cisco Canada, and was produced independently of The Logic’s newsroom in consultation with the advertiser.

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