Microsoft’s Bill Buxton explores innovative cultures

TORONTO – It’s not for an absence of ideas that Canada scores a dismal rating when it comes to innovation, rather it’s a lack of knowing what to do with those ideas, thinks Bill Buxton, principal researcher with Microsoft Corp.

Canada may be home to talented and motivated individuals, but what’s sorely lacking is something broader, he said during the Canadian Business Leadership Forum in Toronto Thursday. “It’s a cultural thing. It’s not about technology. It’s not about money.”

Canadian companies need to have a “cultural ecosystem” that permeates the entire corporation in order to support and encourage the generation, and understanding, of those ideas, said Buxton. “It’s about long-term investment.”

In particular, employees should be encouraged to generate ideas in multiples, which are then filtered through a heuristic process whereby less attractive ideas are rejected, he said.

And, risk and failure should also be an accepted part of innovation because often, a bad idea may be the catalyst for a great one. “Innovation is an extreme sport. It’s a contrarian sport.”

According to Buxton, there are several requirements to mitigating risks within a company. A team must identify and have the right skills, possess the right tools and partners, and be well practiced in the art of idea generation.

Companies also need to have the right “makers of design decisions.” In other words, trained people with expertise to make decisions that will ultimately influence user experience and corporate brand, said Buxton.

The notion of a cultural ecosystem resonated well with at least one conference attendee. Innovative thinking ought to be instilled in employees’ daily activities so ideas can be taken “beyond the thought stage,” said Boro Marinkovich, director of infrastructure and security with Toronto, Ont.-based managed services provider T4G Ltd.

In fact, without that culture, the company couldn’t have experienced the growth that it did in the past 10 years, said Marinkovich, adding that each of the company’s 15 business units are intentionally kept small and entrepreneurial in spirit to encourage this attitude.

At T4G, he said, everyone makes creative decisions. The concept of “idea maturation” is actively promoted in that employees can present ideas in the form of a business plan to company executives, which will be funded if buy-in is obtained. The objective is to eventually spin off the plan into its own business unit. “We’ve gone from four to 15 [units] using that model and through small acquisitions.”

One such successful proposal, said Marinkovich, was the idea that the managed services team could go from providing standard client infrastructure support, to offering support to custom applications, be it in-house or T4G-developed, or third-party.

That move, a year ago, granted the company an edge over competition by meeting a vital customer need, he said. “There was a gap there. Many clients don’t have the resources to actually properly support these applications.”

The feedback portion of the innovation process, he added, comes into play when projects are given 12-18 months to prove they can stand on their own, otherwise they’re evaluated.

But Marinkovich said, as with any company, there’s always room to improve on innovation. “To get us from the 200th to the 2,000th person, the next step in the growth is going to take a lot more innovation and ideas.”

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