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Practical, disruptive innovation can give your company a competitive edge

Mojdeh Poul is president of 3M Canada.

It may be the most overused word in today's business lexicon – a favourite of CEOs, boards, investors and governments who see it as key to economic growth and competitiveness. And a lack of it puts companies at a major disadvantage in a rapidly changing business environment.

That word, of course, is innovation.

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While true innovation must be a priority for Canadian businesses and the people who lead them, it's not a simple undertaking.

As someone who leads the Canadian arm of a company that's been adapting and innovating for 115 years, I know it can be done. More importantly, I see the impact it has across all aspects of our business, each and every day. But I also know how challenging it can be for some companies, especially large ones, to be agile enough to foster and apply innovative ideas.

Define 'innovation'

For me, innovation means value creation – for our customers, for the company and for shareholders. When you innovate a solution that is capable of uniquely addressing an unmet need, you create the value that gives your company a competitive advantage. At 3M, science is key to our innovation. We work in collaborative ways with our customers and suppliers to turn great ideas into practical solutions.

Keep customers front and centre

You don't have to be a science-based company to be innovative, but you do need to focus on practical innovation and engage your customers early in the process to ensure you are developing solutions that add value. Successful innovation meets a need and therefore has a market, and the best way to make sure that happens is to keep your customers front and centre in everything you do.

Be disruptive

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True innovation requires a deep understanding of the ecosystem you operate within and applying technologies, processes or partnerships in unique ways to create solutions no one else has thought of or implemented before. Early collaboration with your customers, suppliers and other key stakeholders makes it easier to drive innovation throughout the entire process – from research and development to production, and from new product solutions to disruptive business models.

Protect your R&D investment

Research and development (R&D) is at the heart of innovation. It is critical for business leaders to protect their company's investments in R&D regardless of performance challenges faced in the market or within their company. Cutting R&D spending when times are tough might provide a short-term boost to the bottom line but will almost certainly lead to long-term declines in competitiveness, growth and profitability.

Create a sense of urgency

Today, our world is changing at a rapid pace. We are in the midst of an unprecedented cycle of new disruptive technologies and business models that are profoundly altering the way we live and work. Leaders need to drive a sense of urgency around the need for continuous innovation and be ambitious in tackling the most challenging problem of their customers or markets.

Play to your strengths

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The impact is always the greatest when you build on your core competencies. Prioritize and align your innovation efforts to your core capabilities and most attractive market opportunities. Leverage your unique strengths, including the diversity of your work force, your operational and organizational capabilities and your brand equity, to name a few.

Tolerate risk

The best innovation happens when you create an environment where employees feel comfortable taking some risks, but this must be done responsibly and with accountability to the business. The best ideas are somewhere between pure creativity and realism.

If you want your organization to be truly innovative, it's time to stop talking and start doing.

Executives, educators and human resources experts contribute to the ongoing Leadership Lab series.

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