Innovation on Call: Insights from the Stratos Idea Factory

12/22/11Follow @curtwoodward

It’s been said plenty of times: If the U.S. wants to get out of this seemingly neverending economic malaise, we’ll have to innovate our way out.

It’s a good idea, and a great slogan. But actually making it happen is not so easy.

Sean MacLeod, president of Seattle’s Stratos Product Development, sees this kind of conundrum up close. Stratos is a design and engineering shop that other businesses turn to when they need help making a new product come to life, which means that it tends to fly under the broader public’s radar.

But its industrial designers and engineers know a thing or two about putting technology to work in new ways. Notable projects over the years have included the Xbox wireless video game controller and the Apple PowerBook 3400 laptop, plus a wide range of medical devices, sensors, and other gadgets.

Sean MacLeod

“A large number of our clientele are looking at the creative or the innovative process, and it’s very messy,” MacLeod says. “It’s a big pile of spaghetti, and they just don’t know how to pull it apart and organize it in a constructive manner. And what we’ve done here is create a process for dealing with that uncertainty. And it’s a really difficult thing to get your mind around.”

Ken Myer

What it takes is having the right group of people, culture, and systems in place to foster new approaches and ideas. I sat down with MacLeod and former WTIA president Ken Myer a while back to talk about the difficulty of innovation for businesses, and came away with these three big ideas.

HEY, BIG SPENDER
Throwing money at a project is no guarantee that you’ll get something new and valuable. But MacLeod says that’s too often the reflex of executives, probably more pronounced in a period when companies have been piling up cash.

“You get this: ‘We’re going to spend this amount of money in this quarter and we want results, and these results need to have clear and identifiable return on investment.’ And those are not the metrics,” MacLeod says. “The whole process is messy.”

“The attributes of an environment that is highly innovative tend to be almost the exact opposite of what a larger company tends to strive to do,” Myer says. “Because they’re looking for zero defects and scalability and predictability and not a lot of deviation from the norm.”

CAN WE PLUG THIS IN?
“Another thing I see is, ‘OK—we’re going to innovate. Let’s go borrow the innovation process from company XYZ and just plop it into our company, and it should work.’ And the reality is that because every company’s different, how they’re innovating and how that’s put together is different for every single company,” MacLeod says. Otherwise, everyone would just copy what Steve Jobs did, and we’d have hundreds of little Apple clones littering the ground, rather than the opposite.

“Or, you can buy it. There are lots of choices,” Myer says—an attractive alternative for smaller companies, particularly in a time when the IPO market has been an unreliable way for them to reward shareholders and employees.

CULTURE IS KING
The first key to having an experimental, innovative group of people is making it OK for projects to fail. The fear of that is typically what paralyzes organizations and makes it so hard for big companies to actually innovate.

Beyond that, companies need to foster a culture of connection and collaboration that will allow smart people to bounce ideas and approaches off each other, Myer says.

“There’s an expression, that chance favors the connected mind. And I think that’s a good summary of the value of connections,” he says. “Because the ability to see these possibilities often comes in very unrelated spaces.”

That need to connect also goes beyond the walls of any one business, MacLeod says.

“The reality is, to innovate, you are not going to have all of the core competencies within a single organization to truly make all those big, innovative leaps,” MacLeod says. “You either have to partner or you have to acquire. You have to be humble enough to know that you don’t know what you don’t know.”

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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