Innovation is key to staying ahead in business, but how innovative are Canadians really? British-born Eric Gales, president of Microsoft Canada, says he sees a gap between the ideas we generate and our willingness to do something about them – and he blames our country's conservative approach for this.
So how are Canadian business leaders faring when it comes to turning innovative ideas into reality?
We canvassed top people from a cross section of sectors and asked them to tell us about the last innovative thing they did or idea they implemented in their company. Their answers ranged from the practical (a way to manage customer feedback) to the whimsical (transforming an old ferry boat into a floating Scandinavian spa).
Jean-François Bouchard, president and senior partner at Montreal-based Sid Lee, an advertising agency with offices in Amsterdam, Paris and Toronto, known for campaigns for companies such as Cirque du Soleil and Red Bull:
One of the year's highlights was transforming an old commercial ferry into a floating Scandinavian spa at the foot of Rue McGill in the Old Port of Montreal, says Mr. Bouchard.
The boat's owners hired Sid Lee's new architecture arm to redesign the shell while keeping the ship's industrial feel. The ferry originally sailed between two Quebec cities in the 1950s and later became a floating theatre. Inspired by the aquatic environment, the agency refurbished all 678 portholes to bring light back inside the ship. It also harnessed geothermal energy from the riverbed below to heat the spa's floors and open-air whirlpool. The 3,150-square-metre vessel, which no longer sails, was re-christened Bota Bota.
Michael Hyatt, co-founder and chief executive officer of BlueCat Networks, a Toronto company that helps businesses manage Internet protocols:
As a frequent speaker to business groups, Mr. Hyatt decided to start charging a fee and make it payable to a charity. "I then connect the charity to the business group as a way for the group to get involved with a good cause," says Mr. Hyatt. "Plus, the charity gets to benefit from some great business minds."
Bruce Kuwabara, Toronto architect and co-founder of Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects (KPMB), and a design partner for Canada's National Ballet School, the Gardiner Museum and TIFF Bell Lightbox:
"The last innovative thing I did was Manitoba Hydro Place," says Mr. Kuwabara. "It's the most energy efficient building in North America, at 65 per cent savings, and a model for extreme climate-responsive design."
The project has a living "green" roof with mosses, grasses and lichens, a solar chimney to enhance fresh air ventilation and a double external wall to reduce heating and cooling costs in Winnipeg's extreme temperatures.
Kunal Gupta, CEO and co-founder of Polar Mobile, a fast-growing Toronto-based app developer:
Earlier this year, Polar Mobile implemented a new team designed to help customers with unusual needs.
"On a few occasions, customers have come to us with a last-minute request they've received from an advertiser to launch a new set of mobile apps, so we empowered our project managers and account managers to be able to decide themselves how to accommodate requests like these," says Mr. Gupta. "In most cases, being agile and lenient for the customers has led to more repeat business."
Brian Scudamore, founder and CEO of 1-800-GOT-JUNK?, a Vancouver-based global junk-removal business:
Mr. Scudamore started a simple loyalty program that asks customers about their 1-800-GOT-JUNK? experience. "Unlike typical programs, it asks just one question: On a scale of 0 to 10, how likely are you to recommend us to a friend or colleague? Based on those scores, a business learns everything about their customer."
"Detractors," those who rate the company between 0 and 6, can be turned into "promoters" – those who rate it a 9 or 10 – with just one personal phone call, Mr. Scudamore says. Most companies who use this system focus on the detractors and promoters, knowing that the "passives," those who give the company a 7 or 8, are basically satisfied.
"[It's]an efficient and effective loyalty program that has turned our business around," says Mr. Scudamore.
Lauren Friese, founder of TalentEgg.ca, a career website for 18- to 24-year-old students and recent graduates:
Last March, Talent Egg recognized that students and recent grads were frustrated with their job searches, so they launched a new section where users can share tips and experiences.
One user, Sarah Sayed, a University of Ottawa graduate in biochemistry and chemical engineering, posted: "I have friends who have done co-op placements with the government, with rave reviews from their bosses, only to not land a job after graduation due to departmental freezes,"
Another user, Emily Moorhouse, a Humber College graduate in public relations, advises doing one or two internships before searching for entry-level jobs to develop skills and get an idea what you enjoy doing. She's currently doing a paid internship.
"Not only are students and recent grads finding a community," says Ms. Friese, "but employers and career centres are participating as well."
Javier San Juan, president and CEO of L'Oréal Canada, based in Montreal:
One of the things Mr. San Juan has done in the past year is make information more freely available within the company, using an intranet to spread customer data and news about the competition.
"I believe that information is power, and it's the kind of power that you should definitely share," says Mr. San Juan. "I think the time when you use information just to have power over people is over." When all participants at a meeting have the same information, he points out, they work better together.