On the Edge of Innovation

If organizations want to innovate, says Cheryl Perkins of Innovationedge, they must focus on products, processes, and people.
On the Edge of Innovation

If innovation is the go-to strategy of the decade, Cheryl Perkins wants to be the go-to consultant on the topic. She’s founder and president of Innovation edge, a consulting firm based in Neenah, Wisconsin, that helps companies and individuals develop innovations and business solutions. Perkins was no stranger to innovation before she launched her own firm in 2007. She has held a variety of positions at consumer products company Kimberly-Clark, most recently as senior vice president and chief innovation office. In that role, she was responsible for innovation and enterprise growth in areas such as R&D, engineering, design, safety, and environmental sustainability.

Consultant Cheryl Perkins helps business leaders determine the products and processes that will provide them with winning strategies.

She and her colleague at Innovation edge, Jeff Lindsay, recently distilled some of their learning into the book Conquering Innovation Fatigue, and they offer ongoing insights online at innovationedge.com/blog/. In the past five years, Business-Week listed Perkins as one of the top 25 Champions of Innovation in the world, and Consumer Goods Technology magazine named her a top executive driving vision within that industry.

While she’s highly focused on what businesses must do to thrive, Perkins knows that many executives count on higher education to support their efforts to grow and change. That’s especially true during uncertain economic times, when many workers—including top managers—are returning to school to acquire new skills.

“As executives try to be more innovative in the work-place, they look to universities to meet their new demands, so universities also must innovate,” Perkins says. “Business schools have realized they need to diversify their curricula and broaden their content, but many of them haven’t changed their modes of delivery.” Whether that means embracing online learning or expanding global travel requirements, she says, “content and delivery both need to change for schools to address demands for innovation in the workplace.” And innovation, she points out, is the strategy that will determine whether or not a business succeeds in the 21st century.

It seems like “innovation” is a word that’s being broadly applied to everything from marketing to design. Can it be narrowed down? What would be your working definition of the term?

Innovation in its simplest form is the introduction of something new that will create economic value. Innovation is not a goal—it’s a mechanism to achieve a business goal, and it goes beyond a company’s products and services. It can be about a company’s business model or processes, how it engages with customers, or how it communicates, translates, and services its brands. So innovation is not just about the what, it’s about the how—how entrepreneurs or corporations or universities leverage partnerships and/or networks to deliver on their final products.

Today, more companies want to harness innovation, but isn’t telling employees to “be innovative” like telling them to “be creative”—either they are or they aren’t? Or is innovation really something that can be taught?

Some people are inherently wired to think innovatively, but that mode of thinking also can be encouraged. An organization that wants to encourage innovation needs to focus on two things: creating the right culture and developing the right processes, which includes offering the right incentives. If an organization doesn’t reward innovative culture and behavior, it won’t stimulate innovation. So it’s important for an organization to set clear structures, objectives, and roles, and then reward the right behaviors. Often, when companies stall, we see that they’ve put processes in place and told employees, “OK, now be innovative,” but they haven’t offered the right incentives. Nothing will change, because they’re asking for innovation in a culture that stifles it.

Innovation is not a goal—it’s a mechanism to achieve a business goal, and it goes beyond a company’s products and services.

Why do you think innovation has become such a key topic at this moment in time?

Innovation is so important now because people are being asked to innovate with less—less money, less time, and fewer people. During economic downturns, organizations cut costs, focus on return on investment, avoid risks, demand accountability for everything, stop listening to their end users, and stop investing in innovation. These behaviors don’t stimulate innovation at all. Company leaders are saying, “Innovate,” but the company’s culture, processes, and rewards actually inhibit innovation.

What is your process for working with your clients? For instance, can you describe the typical consultation you would have with a solo entrepreneur?

We start with the analogy of a “circuit of innovation,” which we relate to the energy that flows though a circuit to turn on a light bulb. We learn about the entrepreneurs—what they’re passionate about, what their goals are—and we learn about their inventions.  Next, we create a market entry strategy and a market plan, and we connect the entrepreneurs with people who care. Those might be business owners or C-suite individuals who make decisions about bringing new products into their pipelines. We bring them the total package, the business proposition along with the invention, and, if appropriate, we facilitate the deal.

How is the approach different when you work with corporations instead of individuals? Is it more difficult to get a whole organization thinking innovatively? 

When we work with companies, we help them establish processes to screen and enable inventions internally. We’ll modify the strategy and the process, and we’ll develop the measures and rewards to create the environment that allows them to leverage their competitive advantage. 

One challenge during economic downturns is that employees begin to suffer what we call “innovation fatigue.” It has three components—human behavior, organizational flaws, and external factors. For instance, fatigue can set in when employees develop the “not invented here” syndrome. “Someone has come up with an idea and it might be great, but it’s not mine.” Fatigue can also result when the organization doesn’t reward innovation, or when a company tries to cope with ever-changing federal laws and regulations.

We work with a company to diagnose which factors are affecting them and which ones aren’t. Then we give the leaders a three-to-five-year roadmap that focuses on elements like strategy, culture, people, processes, metrics, and networks.  Some companies ask us to come back a few years later and do another roadmap or audit the work they’ve done so far. It’s not unusual for us to refine the roadmap based on how the competitive landscape or the availability of resources has changed.

Like businesses, institutions of higher learning need to be innovative, but universities aren’t known for embracing new ways of operating. If you had been called in as consultant to help a business school at a traditional public university become more innovative, what kind of advice would you give?

I’d recommend three things. First, they should do the diagnostic. Administrators need to know what they mean by innovation and which of their processes are enabling and disabling it.

Second, they should create a roadmap to determine which important tasks they need to do this year versus next year versus the following year. These tasks might be related to anything from the curriculum to reward programs. The diagnostic points them to where their biggest issues and challenges are.

Third, they should get stakeholder alignment on the change process. Many times, organizations have innovative ideas, but they don’t do a good job managing change with their stakeholders. They don’t provide enough communication or explain what the changes will mean to each stakeholder. An organization has to manage change from day one, or it won’t happen successfully.

Many businesses these days have chief innovation officers. Is that something universities need as well? Or should innovation be the responsibility of everyone at a company or school?

Even if everyone has some responsibility for innovation, there still needs to be someone looking at the broad picture and delivering on the overall strategy. Many companies have a chief innovation officer or a VP of innovation. Some split the role, so one leader is responsible for near-term innovation and one is responsible for long-term breakthrough innovation.

Regardless of the leadership structure, every company and every university needs someone who is looking across the whole enterprise and asking, “Do we have the right skill sets? The right metrics? The right processes? The right curriculum?” That individual is working from a broader roadmap than anyone else who might own innovation in a single business unit, functional area, or academic department.

That leader needs a very different skill set than we’ve seen in the past. Innovation officers used to be technically savvy. They had deep expertise, but it was rarely broad. Today the people who are successful in these innovation roles understand the business and the technical sides. They don’t just focus on the invention, they think about the market, the end user, the business strategy, the value proposition, and the long-term sustainability. They’re truly business leaders.

How can business schools prepare their graduates to be leaders of innovation when they go into the workforce? What skills do they need to teach?

Innovation leaders succeed by influencing others. That means they need to have very solid communication and negotiation skills. They have to be able to drive change and migrate the culture, and they have to be able to influence those above them, below them, and laterally, even though they don’t have direct responsibility for these people.

Exerting influence isn’t just about understanding people, it’s about understanding organizations. Where are the decisions made, and how can you be part of them? Strong lines of reporting don’t exist any more in matrix organizations, so all the work gets done through influence, collaboration, and problem solving.

How can schools teach students those particular skills?

I’ve seen business schools offer courses like “Introduction to Persuasion,” “Negotiating to Yes,” and “Understanding Corporate Culture.” These are very different from your old “Marketing 101” class. Schools also can teach problem-solving skills by giving students cases where they have to fix a problem even when they have no direct accountability.

A number of universities are offering new programs that are more diverse in both content and delivery. For example, the Georgia Institute of Technology is offering an Enterprise Innovation program that focuses on enhancing innovation capability through defining needs, developing solutions and collaborating to create competitive advantage. MIT is offering both short courses and advanced study programs that build knowledge and capability around platforms such as biotechnology, computational modeling, lean enterprise, and systems engineering.

Lately, business schools have been trying to get out the message that “innovation” doesn’t just mean new products—it also means new ways of thinking. Academics specifically point out that management innovation have changed business just as much as inventions have. What would you identify as some of the most innovative management strategies being used today?

In the future, a great deal of business strategy will be built around collaborative networks, because no single company or university has all the answers. An organization might have a solid strategy for today, but if it wants to plan for the next ten years, it has to find a partner.

Therefore, I think the most innovative strategies are happening around business models that companies use when they come together to share the risk and the revenue. How can organizations engage and make sure all parties are using the right processes, the right products, and the right reward systems? What channels do they use? How do they reach their end users?

Students who go into the business world will need to understand how to collaborate. They’ll have to know how to screen candidates, build partnerships, and assess the health of partnerships beyond financial measures. 

Looking ahead, where do you think current businesses and business schools need to start thinking more innovatively?

In the areas of marketing and communications built around social media. In order to reach people today—whether they’re students or businesspeople—you have to go through alternate channels. You have to reach them where they are instead of expecting them to reach you. So it’s important to engage with end users through alternate media, but these could be used by any function—R&D, supply chain management, and finance, a well as marketing.

Let me close with a couple of questions about you. How did you become interested in innovation as a skill? How do you hone that skill in yourself?

I had a great opportunity in high school to visit different universities over the summer and experiment with various programs, so I got exposed to the world of innovation when I was really young. Later, during my time at Kimberly-Clark, I was able to work in many businesses in many locations and try new things. Then I went back to school! I’m kind of a perpetual learner.

What I learned early on is that when I would have a vision of doing something, it often would be way beyond my areas of responsibility. So I learned to focus on influencing an communicating with people, as well as understanding stakeholders. The soft skills were as important to me as the technical ones. I also learned how essential it is to have a well-rounded business perspective and to see an issue from every point of view, from the team member’s to the consumer’s.

You hold several patents and have several more pending. What inspires you to come up with a new product?

For myself and the entrepreneurs I’ve worked with, a new product starts from a pain point. We experience a problem or see someone else struggling with something, and we think, “There has to be a better way.” Then we start jotting down ideas and playing with different models until we’ve come up with something that’s better, faster, and creates end-user value. It’s a process—of discovery, development, and implementation—but it really springs from a fundamental lack in some area. That’s the sort of thing that sparks my curiosity. Curiosity and persistence are traits that have helped me throughout my career.