Innovate To Thrive!

IdeaConnection Interview with Robert F. Brands, author of Robert’s Rules of Innovation November 14, 2010. By Vern Burkhardt “And the basis of this successful innovation? A natural curiosity, open-mindedness, an ability to see the big picture – combined with hard-headed business acumen.” Robert’s Rules of Innovation, page 39

Vern Burkhardt (VB): You say, “Innovate or die…” It’s that serious a matter for companies, large and small?

Robert F. Brands: Absolutely. Ask yourself, “Where are you on the product lifecycle extending from innovation to introduction, growth, maturity, and decline?” I invite you to attach to this interview the chart from my book which portrays this lifecycle.

No matter where you are on the product lifecycle with your most significant product or service, or your company as a whole, it is imperative to continuously think about the next new product or service to be offered. You need to identify them early so they can be developed, grow in sales and revenues, and be ready to replace your current lead products or services as they mature in the marketplace.

Innovation Restarts the Product Life cycle

VB: ‘Implementing innovation is about taking the organization and doing a “reboot.”‘ Is that a good summary of the key message of Robert’s Rules of Innovation?

photo of Robert BrandsRobert F. Brands: For most companies a “reboot” is the way to go. For others it’s a matter of optimizing the systems and processes currently in place. Either way, whether you are doing reasonably well with innovation or starting new efforts, it is important to take a holistic approach in order to deliver sustainable innovation.

Let me put it in different terms, we are all familiar with Total Quality. This is like Total Innovation. It is not about doing one process or element well or on time. It’s creating a repeatable process that delivers results and improvements over and over again.

VB: Robert’s Rules of Order work best when everyone in the meeting is familiar with them although the person in the Chair should be an expert in applying the rules. Does the same apply to Robert’s Rules of Innovation?

Robert F. Brands: Like most rules, for them to be most effective it is best for all participants to understand and appreciate the elements. However, it is ultimately the Chair – the leader – that needs to walk the talk, inspire the troops, makes sure all rules get applied and used and provide the means – Budget and resources – for the rules to be executed.

VB: ‘When an idea is discovered and implemented across the value chain with success, a “sweet spot” is hit…’ What do you mean by sweet spot?

Robert F. Brands: A sweet spot can be compared to hitting the bull’s-eye of the white space. It is areas of opportunity, complemented by demand, and fulfilled by the optimal product or service at the right price.

VB: Are entrepreneurs who insist on filling the innovation team leader role likely a risk to their business’ long term profitability?

Robert F. Brands: Entrepreneurs with the right financial acumen should never be a risk, but rather an opportunity for long-term profitability.

Team leaders ideally are champions who are passionate about the cause or product. They are appointed or chosen by their fellow team members. Have a good understanding of the customer and their needs.

VB: Is it inevitable that as companies grow larger their new product development process must become more complex, time-consuming, and cumbersome, like the six-step system you used at a major multinational, multi-product line company?

Robert F. Brands: Yes, I would agree but nonetheless simplicity remains king!

It is most important to have people and teams work harmoniously and simultaneously to achieve their objectives. As you can imagine, the larger the organization the more important it is to have objectives that are aligned. Silos are created not just because of individual empire building, but more often due to misalignment of objectives.

In a company new product ideas will undergo a rigorous review by the marketing department in reference to things such as brand strategy, company image, profit potential, and the competitive environment. Other departments will look the new ideas from a different point of view and they will often not be aligned or in agreement.

VB: Is there a danger that great concepts risk being eliminated because of the restricted paradigm of marketing people?

Robert F. Brands: Here you go assuming marketing people have a restrictive paradigm; I would challenge that – me being a marketing person! First and foremost, as I stress in the book there is a need to listen to the customer. Marketing, or marketing & sales people will or should focus on and convey those needs to the organization.

The rigorous reviews, however, should take place with a multitude of departments and individuals ranging from customer service to R&D to get to optimal perspective and results.

VB: Do you have any advice for those who would complain that the Stage-Gate Process® is too cumbersome for many new product development initiatives, and discourages passionate people from remaining highly energized?

Robert F. Brands: Passionate people should be able to remain highly energized while working in a structured environment. Process structure is often used as an excuse.

I have seen stage gate processes done as simply as a four box matrix. What is important is that the participants know every product or service has to go through certain steps or stage gates to reach the marketplace.

Product development processes are established in organizations in order to provide a discipline in the innovation process and to ensure the input and involvement of all of the departments involved. These processes ideally guide and encourage innovation initiatives rather than inhibit them. They are more a matter of “checks and balances” to avoid forgetting important elements and steps.

VB: One of your surprising tips, in the ‘Inspire’ Robert’s Rule, for establishing and maintaining an innovation culture is having regular in person meetings chaired by the CEO or designated leader. How can meetings which often put further pressure on people who are already busy be a good thing?

Robert F. Brands: Meetings only put people under pressure if participants fail in accountability. Regularly scheduled meetings establish expectations that all involved will fulfill their obligations so the innovation initiatives will proceed on schedule, and bottlenecks can be identified at an early stage and addressed. They reinforce an ongoing commitment by all parties and departments involved.

Having regularly scheduled meetings is not the total solution to keeping innovation initiatives on track. If the CEO shows passion, and is engaged and involved in the new product development process the organization will see and understand its importance. With engaging leaders like Steve Jobs, Herb Kohler, and many others an innovation culture follows suit.

VB: “Often, the most successful product development managers are the most facile, accomplished, and successful salespeople within the company.” Aren’t most of the best salespeople prone to being too impatient to engage in the extent of collaboration and discipline the process requires?

Robert F. Brands: The best sales people are often the best listeners. Since listening is an absolute key to identifying customer needs and to enable cooperation with team members, the sales people can often find the best combinations of people to work together. They often also have good leadership skills.

VB: One of the top 5 R&D metrics you identify is total R&D head count, which was used by 59 percent of companies in the 2008 survey. What does this metric indicate that is of significance in measuring the output of a company’s innovation success?

Robert F. Brands: Unfortunately nothing. Many of today’s metrics are no guarantee for success. In particular most public companies report percentage spent on R&D.

As you can imagine budgets and money spent is no guarantee for success. The measure of R&D headcount is often used by smaller companies that cannot show the big percentage or amounts of R&D spend.

However, when I see 10% of a company’s labor pool being utilized to deliver new products and services, I would think that this is an indication of a serious effort. Or even better the number of patents filed.

VB: In your experience do companies often become too bogged down with metrics when trying to measure their innovation performance?

Robert F. Brands: I don’t think so. What is more important is that leaders get used to using the right leading and lagging indicators. Leading could be hours spent in development; lagging could be percentage of new product sales.

Metrics are important, what gets measured gets done – and I urge folks to avoid just looking in the rearview mirror. Setting a specific goal is a key to achieving and delivering objectives.

VB: In your interview with a network of business associates in various industries around the world, which is transcribed in your book, a unique metric is mentioned: “measuring the rate of promises made and promises kept” in reference to a strategic set of brand promises. Do you think all companies should consider this approach?

Robert F. Brands: This approach could only work within the right culture. Promises made and promises kept could become very subjective unless very clearly defined.

It is best and advisable to have very clear and simple objectives, like at least develop and introduce to the marketplace one new product per year. This enables everyone to clearly understand the objective and have all work towards the same goals. It worked very well for Airspray, and resulted after several years in even more new products being developed per year due to the embedded process.

VB: You say product development people have a “Zen-like ability to conjure new concepts and test and retest prototypes.” Would you elaborate on this Zen-like ability?

Robert F. Brands: What we meant to say and explain is the difference between left brain and right brain people.

The best people in product development have the tenacity to try things over and over again while applying new creativity. It takes a lot of passion, stamina and endurance.

VB: You talk about innovation leaders facing the devil’s advocates who fear change and work to undermine innovation efforts at every turn. Should these “Anti Body” types be encouraged to be more positive or even removed from an organization, or do they often serve a useful role?

Robert F. Brands: Great question. I have never been given the option.

The most productive organization is composed of people who believe in the corporate cause, believe in and welcome change, and are willing to try new things. If you hate change and would rather undermine innovation efforts in order to preserve the status quo, you are better off moving to a non-changing work environment. You will not be happy or a good contributor to innovation initiatives.

VB: One innovation leader you quote in your book observed that in order for a team to move beyond incremental innovation to disruptive innovation it should be composed of people with different skill sets, and from different backgrounds and business groups. He also said the champion or driver of the process that the team follows must “break down barriers to resistance and get everyone playing nicely and, more importantly, productively in the proverbial “sandbox”.” Do you agree that recapturing our childhood innocence and enthusiasm helps us be more innovative?

Robert F. Brands: Sure, after all innovation equals creativity times risk-taking.

The more important point is that optimal teams are made up of diverse characters and participants. Homogeneous groups tend to be comfortable and status quo oriented. They will likely be less inclined to look beyond the box, or seek more creative and typically less comfortable solutions.

VB: When talking about the increasing numbers of multinational innovation teams, you describe what you have found to be the attributes of people from the U.S., France, Brazil, and China in terms of how they react in a meeting environment, approach the concept of ‘teamwork,’ and communicate with others. You didn’t describe the national traits of people from the Netherlands, your original homeland. What are they?

Robert F. Brands: The Dutch, people from the Netherlands, tend to assimilate easily and are comfortable adjusting to other cultures. They are typically very direct and candid.

VB: You devote a chapter in your book to intellectual property – understanding what it is and how to protect it. Individuals not associated with companies also register patents. Is this often a sign that they are highly creative?

Robert F. Brands: Patents are intellectual property. The fact that patents are filed and obtained is a pretty good indication of an individual’s or company’s creativity.

IP is growing in importance and enables you to carve out and protect a unique technology or concept. This prevents others from just copying your idea, and it allows you to capitalize on it. IP is a great was to create value and it is proven that companies with an IP portfolio are worth more.

VB: Would you say your book is a summary of best practices for sustaining and profiting from a new product development program?

Robert F. Brands: Perhaps not so much a summary of best practices, but it definitely provides a holistic approach to describing all of the elements that are required to deliver sustainable innovation. On the website for Robert’s rules of innovation we have posted tips and are sharing latest thinking and best practices.

cover of Robert's Rules of InnovationMaybe on balance Robert’s Rules of Innovation is the best practice for creating sustainable innovation. I hadn’t thought of it that way before.

VB: What other books would you recommend to our readers who are keen to learn more about sustainable innovation?

Robert F. Brands: Innovation to the Core by Rowan Gibson, although a little bit more textbook-like, is a very useful book. Most books written are by imperative of the 10 rules I shared. On our website we identify the “Best Books” for each imperative as including Rethink by Ric Merrifield, The New Age of Innovation by C. K. Prahalad, Design Driven Innovation by Roberto Verganti, Creating Competitive Advantage by Jaynie L. Smith, The Innovation Zone by Thomas M. Koulopoulos, Bricklin on Technology by Dan Bricklin, The Blue Sweater by Jacqueline Nofogratz, How the Mighty Fall by Jim Collins, and What Would Google Do? by Jeff Jarvis.

VB: Would you talk about Brands & Company, and what services you provide?

Robert F. Brands: Brands & Company, LLC has a network of innovation coaches who provide companies and organizations a way to evaluate, improve, and deliver innovation. The focus is on helping leaders deliver profitable growth through sustained innovation. Our consulting services include crating action plans for business management, marketing, design and development of new products, and management of intellectual property. Using the Robert’s rules of innovation we can help companies create and sustain “new” in their businesses.

VB: You relate the case of a mentor providing “feed-forward” instead of “feedback.” Do you use this approach in your consulting practice?

Robert F. Brands: Yes, but even more in my daily life. Feed forward gives a positive forward-looking input versus the negative connotation of feedback.

VB: You provide short and in-depth online innovation audits. Is it usually difficult for innovation leaders to do a convincing self audit, resulting in the necessity of bringing in an independent third party?

Robert F. Brands: Sometimes, however the online innovation audit or self-evaluation is merely a first small step to assess the weaker points in any innovation program. Innovation coaching would complement the survey with in person interviews to build from an existing good working foundation.

VB: In Robert’s Rules of Innovation you talk about the foaming hand soap product development success at Airspray. Was that innovation your proudest moment in the business world?

Robert F. Brands: Nice question. As a business our proudest moment was the actual success of products in the marketplace, and this is particularly for instant foaming hand soap. Although the success was not a moment in time or a single day, it was a gradual experience, it is still a very satisfying feeling to know consumers prefer to use and experience instant foaming hand soap.

VB: How did you develop such a large international network of innovators, and how has it benefited you in gaining a better understanding of innovation?

Robert F. Brands: Networking is all about knowledge sharing. Networking within and outside of your industry is important to enable you to stay aware and abreast of changes and opportunities. I developed them over time as I passed through different companies and roles, and via opportunities like tradeshows. Today with vehicles like E.Factor and LinkedIn it is made even easier. Looking back I should and could have done more networking; it is important to invest time into this.

VB: Were there other candidates for Robert’s Rules that, although relevant, were not quite significant enough to include in your book?

Robert F. Brands: Of course. Unfortunately when you write a book you need to know when to put down the pen and share the story.

Today’s web however has allowed us to add learning materials and examples through weekly Blog posts. On our book site we have added additional articles by imperative/rules under each letter. Like Inspire. Another is does a “Chief Innovation Officer” inspire your team?

VB: “…I dedicate this book to my entrepreneurial grandfather, whom I looked up to, and who inspired me.” Would you talk about his entrepreneurial talents and how he inspired you?

Robert F. Brands: My grandfather was an entrepreneur and textile mill owner. For generations since the invention of the steam engine my ancestry explored and grew businesses in the textile industry. Unfortunately, changes in fashion and innovations in materials forced them to close the factories in the mid-70s.

The combination of the entrepreneurial success and need for be ongoing innovation over the years in order to be successful inspired me to say the least.

VB: While writing Robert’s Rules of Innovation did other topics arise as being good candidates for another book?

Robert F. Brands: Yes indeed, but no commitments yet.

VB: You say you’re a control freak. How did you discover this approach didn’t work for promoting innovation in an organization, and how did you learn to temper this tendency?

Robert F. Brands: Being a control freak does not help in a creative and innovative environment. I learned to work around it by applying a methodology I picked up from Ronald Reagan who called it “empowerment with verification” or “trust with verification.” This approach worked well for me.

VB: Would it be correct to conclude you are passionate about creativity and innovation?

Robert F. Brands: Very much so. I tend to be an early adopter with new products, but more importantly I become very excited when people come up with new products and services. Innovate to thrive!

Conclusion:
Author Robert F. Brands speaks from experience when he talks about innovation having been in leadership roles where innovation was the key to success. He is still understandably proud of the breakthrough innovation of instant foam dispensing product innovation while he was CEO of Airspray.

His ten Robert’s rules of innovation are described as “rules of order.” They are rules that must be “implemented, maintained, protected, and fostered – fiercely – in order for your innovation program to succeed.” Given Robert F. Brands success as an innovation leader they are definitely worthy of careful consideration.

Robert F. Brands’ Bio:
Author Robert F. Brands is a native of The Netherlands, who earned a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration from HTS Eindhoven. He is President and founder of Brands & Company, LLC.

Robert F. Brand’s professional experience includes positions as Manager of New Consumer Products at Philips Lighting Company, and Manager and International Trade Advisor for the Netherlands Chamber of Commerce (U.S.). From 1989 to 1993 he was Marketing Manager of Consumer Lighting for GTE/Sylvania Lighting Division where he developed consumer marketing programs for this $210 U.S. million division. In this capacity he orchestrated the development and launch of groundbreaking new products and packaging designs like Double Life bulbs and Dual Graphics. From 1993-1995, he was Vice President of Marketing at Sterling Plumbing Group, Inc. where he directed all advertising, sales promotion, market research, pricing, product management and new product development for the Sterling retail brand which primarily services big box chains like Lowes and Home Depot. From 1995 to 1998 he was Vice President of Marketing at Kohler Company where he led marketing efforts for Kohler Plumbing Fixtures, which is an $800U.S. million operating unit. At Kohler he was responsible for line profitability, product management, pricing, market research and all other marketing services. Under his stewardship as President of Airspray Int’l, Inc. from 1998 and as CEO of Airspray starting in 2004, the Dutch public company created the international market for instant foam dispensing which delivered consistent double-digit profitable growth. After Rexam’s acquisition of Airspray NV in May 2006 and until August 2007, Robert F. Brands was responsible for Rexam Dispensing Systems with eleven sites and about $400U.S. million in sales. He implemented best innovation practices initially in the Dispensing Systems division and later in the $1B Personal Care Division that aided in numerous and significant new product introductions, such as L’Oreal’s most successful consumer product introductions in years.

Robert F. Brands is the author of Robert’s Rules of Innovation: A 10-Step Program for Corporate Survival (2010).

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