Building a Roadmap to Innovation – Part 1

An interview with George Young, founding partner of Kalypso

On a recent rainy, Friday afternoon, I attended an event on innovation at the University of Texas at Dallas Naveen Jindal School of Management. As I was driving north up Central Expressway with my windshield wipers sliding furiously across the windows as rain slapped down on them, I thought, Who in the world is going to turn out in this weather on a Friday afternoon to hear about innovation? Well, a lot of people braved the storm that afternoon. Innovation is a hot topic, and the auditorium was full of people eager to hear what this intriguing panel of innovation experts had to say on the matter.

I meet interesting people all the time, and George Young, founding partner of Kalypso and one of the innovation experts and panelists, is no exception. George holds four U.S. patents and was named the 1994 Northeast Ohio Inventor of the Year. He is a member of The Ohio State University’s Technology Review Board to promote the commercialization of emerging technologies. He holds a Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry from The Ohio State University and an MBA in Finance and Strategic Planning from Rice University. In addition to his impressive professional and academic credentials, George also writes music and performs as lead singer for the band Vernon Trumbull and His Kinsmen.

When it comes to creativity and innovation, George is indeed an expert. Having spent a great deal of my professional career in the retail industry, innovation is something I am particularly interested in, and I was curious to hear how George thought companies should be exploring innovation. During this two-part interview, George discusses his definition of innovation, how companies are often creative for the sake of being creative, and how companies might “get outside the box” as it relates to innovation.

How should companies be exploring innovation?
Innovation is typically thought of in terms of product development, but it needs to be broadly defined in terms of business strategy. At Kalypso, we work with companies to develop an innovation roadmap that is derived from business strategy.

What if your business strategy is flawed?
You need to have a solid business strategy in place before you start incorporating an innovation strategy. If your business strategy is flawed — even if you do a great job at linking your innovation strategy to your business strategy — it means you will be wildly unsuccessful.

For example, BF Goodrich was really well known for leading the industry in inventions but they were never able to capitalize on their innovations because they never linked their business strategy to their innovation strategy. Capitalizing on this disconnect, other companies would wait for BF Goodrich to come up with something new and then steal their ideas. This approach became their innovation strategy.

So, you don’t have to be first to innovate?
No, but you have to look at your core competencies. A great example is a food company client that asked us to help them create an innovation strategy that would allow them to do more blockbuster innovation.

To put it in a baseball analogy: they didn’t hit a lot of homeruns, but they always won because they were great at hitting singles and doubles (much like the 1982 St. Louis Cardinals who had the lowest slugging average but won the World Series with singles and doubles).

If you want to be a great innovation company, you have to consciously do four things:

1. Retool your innovation processes
2. Retool your metrics
3. Hire different kinds of people
4. Accept different rates of success

Our recommendation for this company was that hitting singles and doubles was actually working for them, and we didn’t see an advantage in going for a homerun.

There is a lot being written about the end of innovation. What are your thoughts about that?
Well, that’s silly. However, I do believe there are some people who think the age of great corporate innovation is over. The question to ask, then, is if the age of large global companies with basic research are just learning things for learning’s sake. Which to that, I might answer yes.

What trends are you seeing in R&D?
The larger companies with R&D are getting a bit stodgy, and haven’t been able to translate what they are learning into commercial success. These companies are turning to academic labs and small biotech companies to get the breakthroughs instead. As soon as these folks are successful, they bring them in-house and then buy and develop the ideas. By funding smaller teams or companies, big innovation is being pursued by large corporations; they are mitigating the risk. They’re giving money, but they are not betting the farm. They take a venture capitalist approach to research and development.

Stay tuned for part two of this blog to learn what the top innovative companies have in common and who the upcoming innovative leaders are and what we can learn from them.

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Becky Powell-Schwartz, Founder & CEO