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Book review: How to be a game changing innovator

The Game Changer: How You Can Drive Revenue and Profit Growth With Innovation

A.G. Lafley and Ram Charan

Crown Business, $32

I’ve just stunned a bunch of students.

We’re meeting to review their year-end assignments. I’m here to offer constructive criticism on their public relations plans. But the plans are pretty good and they graduate in two days. So really, what’s left to say?

One team fixates on their mark. They’re not happy campers. What should we have done to get a better grade, they ask. Don’t lose sleep over it, I say. Your future employer won’t care and you won’t remember your mark in six months. The one and only time I tossed my Harvard of the North transcripts into a job search, my boss-to-be was unimpressed. He diplomatically told me that he couldn’t see the connection between getting an A average in political theory and contemporary film studies and knowing how to crank out newsletters and clip stories from the North Bay Nugget, Windsor Star and Orillia Packet and Times.

Another team asks how I would have done the assignment. And here’s where I shock and awe the students. I’d spend 90 per cent of my time rounding up PR plans from the real world. I’d search Google and Wikipedia, work the phones and fire off e-mails to PR pros who know what they’re doing. I’d spend the remaining 10 per cent of my time shamelessly stealing and stitching together the best ideas.

Which is pretty much how I do my job every day, I tell the students.

Works like a charm.

You can do that? ask the students. Won’t you get fired?

No, I tell the students. If anything, you’ll Teflon coat your career.

Instead of wasting time reinventing wheels and coming up with square tires, you’ll get the job done faster and smarter. And that’s why you’ll get paid the big bucks.

Aren’t we supposed to be creative? ask the students. Come up with new ideas?

You bet, I say. Just don’t try doing it on your own. No one’s that smart and no one has a monopoly on good ideas. So connect with other folks and read as much as you can. Cram your head with ideas, different perspectives and conflicting viewpoints. Ask people how and why they did what you’re thinking of doing. Talk best practices. Swap lessons learned. Soak up case studies. Riff off each other’s ideas. Mix, match and mash up what you learn, what you hear and see. You’re all but guaranteed to come up with something innovative and far better than what you could ever dream up by going solo behind closed doors.

Still not convinced? Then listen to Procter & Gamble, one of the world’s most innovative companies. "Innovation is all about connections," says P&G CEO A.G. Lafley and business guru Ram Charan.

"The more connections, the more ideas; the more ideas, the more solutions." Today, half of new product and technology innovations come from outside P&G. Eight years ago, it was less than 15 per cent. And what bottom-line impact has this outside-in innovation focus had on the company? In the past seven years, P&G has tripled profits and averaged earnings per share growth of 12 per cent.

Innovation is a social process, the authors repeat throughout their must-read book. "And this process can only happen when people do that simple, profound thing — connect to share problems, opportunities and learning. Anyone can innovate but practically no one can innovate alone."

At the centre of all P&G innovation are the consumers who use the company’s brands three billion times a day. At P&G, the consumer — and not the CEO or the board of directors — is boss. Can the same be said of your organization?

"Regardless of the original source of innovation — an idea, a technology, a social trend — the consumer must be at the centre of the innovation process from beginning to end," says Lafley.

Consumers are involved early and often. "Ideally, she or he will co-create and co-design new brands and new products. In the end, we don’t have a successful innovation until she/he tries, buys and repurchases on a regular basis."

Check out how P&G connects with consumers. The company runs a pair of consumer immersion programs called Living It and Working It. One program has senior execs, managers, staffers and new hires living with families. Sleeping under the same roof. Eating meals and shopping together. Watching and learning how folks spend their time and money.

What they buy, why and how they use the products. It’s how P&G cracked the lower-income market in Mexico — a market that represents 60 per cent of Mexico’s 106 million people. Another program has P&G people working behind the counter at small shops. These programs bridge the gap in consumer understanding and that understanding gets turned into profit through innovation.

The company also knows how to create game-changing innovation leaders. According to Lafley and Charan, innovation leaders take on four value-added tasks that differentiate them for the rest of the pack.

They set a vision that can’t be accomplished without innovation, they inspire others, integrate innovation into all aspects of their work through extraordinary creativity and exceptional discipline and make the right things happen by dealing with the real issues.

Game changers have relentless courage and aren’t afraid of risk. They’re integrative thinkers, able to find unobvious connections and patterns from a diverse set of seemingly contradictory factors. They see more things as relevant and important. And they have well-balanced intellectual and emotional skills. They think with their head and their gut and "have a well developed intuition to understand and appreciate people’s intentions, feelings and motivations."

Doesn’t sound like you? Not involved in running or pitching any innovative projects at work? You may want to make it a Monday morning priority.

"There is an increasing advantage to being a game-changer – and higher risk for trying to survive on the defensive," says Charan.

"Innovation enables you to be on the offensive. The speed of change is such that compared to even to two decades ago, ‘innovate or die’ is truly the name of the game."

Resisting, dismissing or ignoring calls for innovation is a career-limiting move "because you will be left behind or risk obsolescence in the skills that will be required in the future," say Lafley and Charan.

"Without this experience, you are neither building your capabilities nor learning how to deal with uncertainty and managing risk. Figuring out how to make decisions across silos — bringing together all the skills from people across the company to make innovation happen — can help to make you CEO material."

And that may well be the best advice to give to freshly-minted grads looking to make their mark in the workplace.

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