Sports coaches frequently exhort that there is no ``I'' in team. But there certainly is a big, fat ``I'' in business these days. It stands for ``innovation'' and is The Next Big Thing.
Some of you may groan, and suggest this is just the latest buzzword or management fad. And you'd be wrong. This is different. Of course, we all remember Six Sigma and lean manufacturing and other former hot topics. This is not to belittle those processes and efforts. They were valid and remain so. But they also are infinitely measurable, using various metrics.
How does one measure innovation? There are ways, but it also can be amorphous, and border on the undefinable. Yet it's vital - the very lifeblood of tomorrow's successful businesses. And putting the right organizational structure and mind-set in place is key to developing and sustaining it.
The irony is that the ``I'' in business absolutely requires a team. Individual innovators can come in many forms, be any age or inhabit virtually any position within your company. Leaders must learn to identify, hire, nurture and stimulate them. But to succeed on any significant level, tight-knit teamwork is a must. In manufacturing, parties throughout the supply chain need to explore new ways to brainstorm, communicate and execute.
Plastics materials suppliers, for example, used to simply pitch the attributes of their products to prospective customers, provide a few samples and spec sheets, and hope some manufacturing engineer would ``spec in'' their product. Today, those same suppliers need to elbow their way early into the product development process and bring new problem-solving concepts to the table. They also often must participate on teams that might include not only engineers and industrial designers but also marketers and psychologists.
Understanding customers is vital to remaining competitive. Lower-cost manufacturers always will be able to deliver less-expensive, salable knockoffs of your products. Get used to it; that's not going to change. What they are much less likely to be able to do any time soon is to understand and anticipate your customers' needs better than you - providing you're engaged in the innovation process.
BusinessWeek magazine, which has been out front on this topic in the business press, published an excellent special report on innovation and the creative process in its Aug. 1 issue. Some ``D-schools'' are starting to pop up - design schools that will help managers to learn the dynamics of innovation.
Leading corporations such as Procter & Gamble Co. and General Electric Co. are remaking themselves with innovation as a core value.
Those happen to be mega-companies. But there is no size parameter for innovation. Learning the skill sets necessary to becoming an innovator is every bit as vital to the survivability and success of small businesses and manufacturers. So jump on the D-train before it leaves your team ``I''-less and grasping for ways to compete in today's global economy.
Robert Grace is editor, associate publisher and conference director of Plastics News. PN plans to contribute to the innovation discussion with its Oct. 19 Design Day conference at Plastics Encounter in Charlotte, N.C. The program includes speakers from such firms as IDEO, Tupperware, Diebold, PDS Development and Freetech Plastics.