Let the Creative Sparks Fly

May 5, 2015

5 action steps to foster continuous innovation

By Karen J. Bannan

Every year PwC polls CEOs across the globe on challenges and issues facing business, and every year the survey results have a common theme: innovation is both a disruptor and a transformer. PwC agrees. Executives who foster innovation can help their companies find more success.

BMA Buzz caught up with Stephen Liguori, former executive director of global innovation at GE and chairman of the BMA Advisory Board, to discuss how marketers can create a culture that fosters high levels of innovation within their organizations. Making a concerted effort is imperative, he says, because the more successful a company is, the harder it is to find true innovation.

“I call it the unintended consequence of success,” explains Liguori, founder and CEO of the consulting firm Liguori Innovation. “The very things that make you successful, like building controls, bureaucracy, and processes to keep you safe, crowd out and kill the things that foster innovation. And that’s how your company gets disrupted by two kids and a dog in a garage.”

Here are the five action steps that Liguori says every company needs to take to become more innovative.

  1. Get comfortable being uncomfortable — and failing. You’ve probably heard it before: fail early, and fail cheap. While easier said than done, failure is often the impetus for true success. “Learn from your failure and take that knowledge to do something better and different,” Liguori says. For example, he has a picture of a bag of bite-sized Doritos on his wall, a product that was a multimillion-dollar flop when he was vice president of marketing at Frito-Lay. “The CEO gave it to me at my going-away party,” he explains. “It was funny, but it also spoke volumes about the culture, in that it’s okay to fail.”
  2. Act like a start-up. Every multibillion-dollar company started out with one or two people and an idea. However, once a company grows, it can be difficult to find that innovative spark unless innovation is built into the business plan. Liguori points to a program at GE called FastWorks, in which small, lean teams are given small “start-up” budgets and a challenge to work with customers to come up with a better product in rapid time. “Create mechanisms where you engage both leaders and team members to become innovators and corporate entrepreneurs,” he says. Those teams should also be freed from busy work or anything that would distract them from innovation. “You can’t serve two masters. You’re either going to be on an innovation project or you’re not,” Liguori says.
  3. Involve your customers early and often. Bringing customers into the equation is a huge part of GE’s FastWorks program, for good reason — customers are the ones who buy GE’s products and services. However, many companies completely leave customers out of the thought process when developing new products and marketing/support programs. Teams that put the customer first, Liguori says, will get insights that can help spur innovation. “There’s magic in putting your designers, your engineers, your salespeople, your product managers literally on the ground with the customer, in the setting where the customer is using the actual product or service,” he notes. Involving customers can also save money in the long run. “If your customers try something out and it doesn’t work, you can come back and say, ‘You know what? We thought this was a good idea, but now we know it’s not, so we just saved money not going forward with a bad idea,’” Liguori says.
  4. Create cross-functional teams. GE’s FastWorks teams are multidisciplinary and comprised of new hires and veterans from every corner of the company, and for key projects an entrepreneur-in-residence from an actual startup helps as a coach. This is key, Liguori says, because there’s no one function that has a lock on innovation. “Innovation should not belong to product management. It should not belong to sales. It should not belong to finance. It should not belong to HR,” he says. “Innovation is a team sport.”
  5. Put rewards in place for innovation. Most companies already reward teams that launch a successful product or service, but innovation requires organizations to change their definition of success. Failures, especially those that save money, need to be rewarded too. “When a team comes to you and recommends shutting down a project because it doesn’t work, and you didn’t spend money on prototypes, marketing, and product launch, they deserve to be rewarded,” Liguori says. “That’s the basis of innovation.” Teams should also be rewarded for going outside their comfort zone. “Success could be, ‘We tried 20 new ideas out this past quarter, and the good news is 10 of them are total duds,’” Liguori explains. “By not investing $1 million a year in these new products, we saved the company $10 million.”

Stephen Liguori is the keynote speaker at “A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Innovation: What Marketers Must do Today,” May 14 at the University Club of Milwaukee in Milwaukee, Wisc. 


"Let the Creative Sparks Fly." Karen J. Bannan. BMA Buzz. 5/5/15.