Innovative efforts require more than just talk

Steve Wood
Steve Wood

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Innovation is a bit like the old joke about the weather, Steve Wood believes: Everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it.

It takes more than talk to nurture a culture of innovation. If anything, innovation is a byproduct of a commitment  to excel, said Wood, former owner, president and chief executive officer of the Capco defense contractor in Grand Junction.

Wood discussed innovation during his  keynote presentation at a summit hosted in Grand Junction by the Colorado Advanced Manufacturing Alliance West Chapter.

While Wood said he was neither an expert on innovation nor even well-read on the subject, he belonged to a team at Capco known for its innovation in developing new products and processes. “I was part of something very special for a lot of years.”

Wood now operates Spirit Engineering, an engineering design firm involved in the development of a new light aircraft.

Creativity, an idea or even patented invention aren’t necessarily innovative, Wood said. “An idea in and of itself is not an innovation. You’ve got to do something with it.”

Innovation doesn’t occur, he said, until an idea, new product or process are successfully implemented and add value for a business and its customers.

Innovation most often arises from a need, Wood said, whether that’s addressing a challenge for a customer or market or controlling costs. Innovation is sometimes the sum of incremental changes in reducing the steps, labor and waste involved in a process while improving quality, he said.

Capco succeeds in a highly competitive defense industry by striving to offer the lowest price, highest quality and quickest delivery, he said.

While customers sometimes tell businesses about their challenges, what they say they need isn’t always what they actually need, Wood said. Meeting the needs of the end users of a product is the most important of all. In the case of Capco, that was the airmen, sailors and soldiers who used the company’s products to carry out military missions, he said.

Personal annoyances also can lead to  innovation, Wood said — the development of the flyswatter and mousetrap constitute likely examples.

Moreover, the struggle to survive can force businesses to become more innovative in developing new products or services or finding better ways to deliver existing products and services, he said. “Some of the best innovations come from the toughest conditions.”

Most frequently, though, innovation results from the desire of people to excel and distinguish themselves and from the personal satisfaction that comes with achievement, he said.

While many companies might claim they want a culture of innovation, it’s a question that should be answered carefully, Wood said. Those who prefer security and avoid risks should consider whether or not they actually want to innovate.

A culture of innovation starts at the top and must be supported by leaders in their words and deeds every day, Wood said. Innovation must be encouraged and, when it occurs, celebrated and rewarded. “We reward things we place value on.”

Innovation requires good communication among all the members of a team — communication that occurs not only in offices and conference rooms, but also hallways, break rooms and even bathrooms, he said.

Time and resources must be allocated to develop innovative products and approaches, he said. It helps to reinforce the why, and that’s usually to fix a problem for customers.

How do companies know when they’ve actually developed a culture of innovation?

When innovation becomes not only a habit, but also an expectation that members of the team have for themselves and each other, Wood said. 

Customers are the ultimate judge in choosing whether to use innovative as an adjective to describe a company, he said.

Quoting the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, Wood said all progress relies on the unreasonable man. “Be unreasonable,” he said.