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A leading innovation and marketing blog from Braden Kelley of Business Strategy Innovation

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Nurturing Innovation by Focusing on What Went Right

by Paul Sloane

Caterpillar Licensed ProductsIn looking for improvements and innovations we tend to focus our attention on what went wrong. We try to fix problems. A typical management meeting consists of a group of people who are looking at what is not working and trying their hardest to come up with ways to put things right. But in the process they are often allocating blame, arguing, becoming negative and getting frustrated.

Most managers ask these kinds of questions:
  • Why are sales down?

  • What is holding up production?

  • What can we do about customer complaints?

  • What can I do about difficult staff?

  • What is wrong with the current process?

  • Where can we speed things up?

  • How can we stop all these problems?

These are good questions and the problems have to be addressed. However, by focussing our attention on the negative we miss the innovation opportunities presented by the positive. We should also spend some time asking questions like these:
  • What are our key strengths?

  • What do customers like about us?

  • What is going well?

  • What unexpectedly good things have happened here recently?

  • What new customers have we won?

  • In what ways have we delighted customers?

  • What is it that only we can do?

How Cat roared into the branded items business

Caterpillar was a well-established leader in heavy earth-moving equipment. Then in 1996 they started selling a sideline, "Cat" branded work boots. These were
unexpectedly successful with young consumers who would never use or buy heavy Caterpillar machinery. By 2000 they were selling over 25 million pairs of boots. They have now branched out into other kinds of clothing and toys to exploit the Cat brand.

By focusing on our strengths and capabilities we can see positive opportunities. If we concentrate on fixing the current model then we can easily miss new possibilities. All our energies are going into alleviating problems and weaknesses - this denies us the chance to create new initiatives.

It is the same with people. When we are toddlers everyone praises us and tells us how wonderful all the things we do are. Then as we go through the school process things change and the emphasis switches, the errors in our work are pointed out and teachers tell us all the things we could better. This is well meant but the impact on fragile egos can be severe.

When we get to work we are at first acutely aware of our lack of experience and authority. At our annual appraisal we are told the things we need to focus on to improve. We plan training and coaching to improve our weak areas. Our strengths are taken for granted and development focuses on our weaknesses in order to make us "well rounded."

But surely the key to success is to build on our strengths and to compensate for weaknesses. If we have a good voice but can't dance then why try to become an all-rounder? Surely it is better to scrap the dancing lessons and put all our efforts into becoming a great singer.

In business we have to figure out what the true assets of the business are - what are our core strengths and abilities? What can we excel at? If we are great at marketing but lousy at administration then we should probably stop spending time and energy trying to get our administrative systems fixed. Outsource it to someone who is good at that and let's concentrate on playing the game we are good at - marketing.

In addition to fixing what is wrong we should spend time examining what is right. Look for success stories, talk to delighted customers, ask them what makes us better than the others and then build on that. Find the right partners to compensate the areas where we are ordinary or weak and free up time to find creative new ways to exploit our strengths. We need to find unexpected and unusual things that we do really well because they can give us the competitive advantage we need. Let's focus on what our organisation is really good at and build our success on that.



Paul SloanePaul Sloane writes, speaks and leads workshops on creativity, innovation and leadership. He is the author of The Innovative Leader published by Kogan-Page.

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