Edition nº 26
After giving me the buzz word "sustainability" to write about in the last issue of this magazine, the publisher has now asked me to write about another one: "innovation". Had I waited, I might have combined the two into a single article on "sustainable innovation". Kidding aside, when companies talk about innovation I am reminded of Mark Twain's comment about the weather: everybody talks about it but nobody does anything about it. But innovation can work. Rather than re-hash all of the familiar clichés about making innovation part of the corporate culture, I have chosen to provide a concrete example of successful innovation from my own professional career.
In the early years of my career I worked for the Dupont Company which had a most interesting, profitable and successful innovation program in place. Dupont was famous for such successes as nylon, Lycra®, and Kevlar® and the rather dubious performance of Corfam® (a synthetic leather). Well, three out of four is not bad! The stories behind nylon and Kevlar® are the direct result of the unique innovation culture at Dupont.
Dupont traditionally maintained 2 levels of research. One level was a kind of "blue-sky" facility where scientists experimented with developing "stuff". It was not entirely "directed research" but closer to pure experimentation. When something was discovered, it was then tested in another facility designed to find applications for the discovery. Such was the story of nylon. A researcher in the "blue-sky" laboratory had been experimenting with acetic acid compounds and left a beaker of liquid that he had been working with on a table and went to lunch. When he returned he noticed that a residue had settled to the bottom of the beaker.
Innovation means looking at old problems in new ways
He pushed the residue through a spinneret and the result was a bunch of fibers. The fibers were sent to the applications laboratory where they were tested in various applications. The tests revealed that the fibers had a silk-like quality with greater strength than silk. Nylon was born! It substituted for numerous applications of silk in everything from women's stockings to parachutes. It is still used today to keep you safe in your vehicle, restrained from harm by seat belts. I have no idea how profitable the discovery of nylon has been for Dupont but I am certain that it has more than compensated for the research costs of its discovery.
Kevlar® offers another interesting case. The "blue-sky" lab had developed a graphite fiber that appeared to be quite strong – as strong as or stronger than steel. Again, the fiber was sent over to the applications laboratory where it was rendered into a wide range of products for testing. One individual working in the applications lab reportedly took a sample of Kevlar cloth home and not knowing what else to do with it, took it down to his basement where he had a hand-gun firing range. He shot at the sample and discovered that Kevlar was bullet-proof!
Innovation is more than just scientific research. It also involves looking at old problems in new ways.
Psychiatrist and management consultant Edward de Bono calls it "lateral thinking". The recent development of an emerging middle class in Brazil from the Class C and D levels of the income pyramid has challenged companies to develop new marketing approaches and new packaging, among other "outside the box" measures to address a potentially huge market. Wouldn't you like to innovate your way into a market that addresses over 50% of the consumption of a C$1.4 trillion economy?
Translation to English: BeKom Comunicação Internacional