Not Leaving Good Ideas on the Shelf

An Interview with Andre Laurin, co-founder and CEO of BrainBank
By Vern Burkhardt
BrainBank Inc. is located in Montreal, Canada. It provides systems, implementation consultants and technologists that enable organizations to implement idea and innovation management processes that deliver measurable and sustainable improvements in financial results; and positive cultural change.

I recently had an opportunity to interview Andre Laurin, co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of BrainBank.

Vern Burkhardt (VB): I believe you founded BrainBank about 10 years ago. Has your company’s vision and mission changed over that period of time?

Andre Laurin:
Yes it started in 1997 and we have come full circle. When my partner and I started BrainBank, it was as an idea agent. We were on the Internet, and we got all kinds of press in those days—we were on the cover of the USA Today Money section, the Washington Post, the Miami Herald, Macleans Magazine, USA News and World Report, and others.

We hung out a shingle by way of a website and let people come in and submit their new ideas. We gave them templates so they could articulate the benefits of their ideas, and we would then contact their management and try to sell them their employees’ ideas. This worked on a limited basis for a fairly short period of time until we consistently got the same feedback—they didn’t want to buy the ideas of their employees but they would love to have a technology that encouraged employees to share their ideas, and that systematically collected and effectively dealt with those ideas. So we set out to convert the technology from an open system to an internal system.

VB: You say you came full circle?

Andre Laurin:
Yes, with the advent of open innovation, the funny thing is we came full circle and are doing it the other way again; sort of. The marketplace was not ready when we first started—t was at the very beginning of the Internet. The .com bubble hadn’t even begun to inflate much less burst. But we realized if we wanted to stay alive and grow we needed to go where the companies wanted us to go. So we developed the software, which we’ve sold successfully over the last nine years

Today companies are running as fast as they can. Cycle times are plummeting. It seems like everyone is running at full steam just to keep pace—forget about really growing in the capacity they dream of. So I think there has to be a helpful lever out there, especially for companies in the western hemisphere economies. We don’t have the same culture as people in India or China do where there is more of an all-for-one, one-for-all cultural mindset. We don’t have economies that are growing at 10 to 11 ½ percent per year.

People talk about thinking outside the box. What does that really mean? Ultimately it means taking risks—management, operational and cultural risks—and reaching outside our own proverbial box. Look at what’s happening out there. There’s a ton of talent, goodwill, and availability. Why aren’t we using it?

VB: I guess we’re restricted by our own conservatism and lack of desire to take risks.

Andre Laurin:
I think it’s very human. When you have nothing you have nothing to loose, when you have something you have something to loose.

I heard a good analogy about senior management talking out of both sides of their mouths, one side saying “we need innovation at all costs, let’s go out and get innovation” while the other is saying “and, by the way, don’t miss your quarterly sales and profit numbers”. It’s like sending one expedition to the North Pole and the South Pole at the same time.

There has to be a way to make innovation happen. Your management board is there, you can’t take your eye off the financial targets, but at the same time you have to be playing in a different sand box in order to create the promises of tomorrow.

VB: So your vision and mission for BrainBank hasn’t really changed over the past 11 years, even though you’ve adapted to the marketplace. Has anything about it changed?

Andre Laurin:
Yes, a new product design and new approach occurred a little over a year ago, spurred on in an interesting way. I attended a New Year’s Eve party where I met the director of the design school of a highly respected university. While we were chatting I said “Look, I run this software company and I like to think we’re pretty avant-garde… but the truth is we don’t necessarily have a lock on new ideas any more than anyone else. We’re susceptible to the same market forces as everyone else. It would be interesting if you took a look at our interfaces seeing as you live in a three dimensional world, while we largely live in a two dimensional world. I would love to hear any ideas you might have on how to improve our interfaces.” He said “Sure, I’d love to do that”.

So we arranged to get together. By email he indicated he would like to have some of his graduate students attend so they could weigh in from their perspective. I was more than happy to have them there. The outcome was that only half an hour into our discussion with these folks, we understood something we hadn’t understood before—not because they gave us a specific solution but because our conversation led to a specific solution. We had been working on this problem long before, but that conversation was the lynch pin which caused us to give it our renewed and full attention.

VB: What is BrainBank’s “value proposition”?

Andre Laurin:
It’s multiple, but if I had to distill what we offer into a few words it’s that we provide communication between people through the bias of innovation. Speed, scale and complexity have a way of impacting even the best communications dynamics.

The “value proposition” is to help companies and other organizations grow. We give our customers an innovation process and technology that delivers results. Without process you can have the slickest technology in the world, but it will not be of any use because no one will be using it. So we design processes for the community that is going to be using them. These processes include things like different response times; relevant forms, templates and tools configured for the exact purposes of the different role players in the process; proper pathing, routing and timelines; actionable workflows; meaningful recognition and rewards; communication; and accountabilities and metrics.

The problem is the world has gotten used to push button solutions and not everybody wants to sit down and think about these things.

I’ve read a lot recently about Garry Hamel and his book on management innovation and, as excellent as the book is—he has a great writing style—I think it is ambitious to think companies, especially bigger ones, will be able to change their cultures to the dramatic degree he suggests. I think doing it in the timeframe required will be impossible. So what do we do, where do we go? We always go by the path of least resistance.

VB: Why do you think this is the case?

Andre Laurin:
I’m not sure whether its cost, laziness, or habit. It is difficult to “un-learn” something, especially if it’s intrinsic and entrenched. People will tend to do whatever is easiest.

I also believe that many organizations are starting behind the eight ball because they don’t have visible and enduring championing from senior management, which is really a must for such a vital corporate initiative.

VB: What are the strengths of your company?

Andre Laurin:
We have two core competencies: the first is process design. Really understanding the process and experience in working closely with clients.

When I started in this business I was doing it manually; it was for a performance improvement company that implemented short-term high-impact Employee Suggestion Programs, with multi-colored forms in quadruplicate. There were no specialized systems and no internet--just a DOS program to monitor very basic metrics.

Many of our first implementations were custom implementations, so we learned to work closely with clients and develop a sense of trust. Once trust is established you really learn where the points of pain are, not the advertised point of pain with someone just coming in and kicking the tires. That enabled us to develop processes and systems that are fundamental to the innovation mission.

The second strength is our technology. We’ve developed a very robust platform technology, and hosting infrastructure, because our clients have to be able to rely on us for the system to work. It has to be a system that is easy to use and manages all the deliverables of our program’s “brand promise”, and do so securely.

When a potential client is considering using us, especially in ASP mode, in application service provider mode, they really do their homework. They don’t just buy something and hope it will work. They are careful that the decision to engage us isn’t going to cost them down the road. An innovation process, whether internal or open, is very visible. If it flops, it takes a lot of will and resources to start anew—and people have long memories.

VB: On your website you say that innovation is an emerging discipline and no longer the exclusive domain of corporate think tanks but rather everyone’s business. Could you explain what you mean?

Andre Laurin:
One doesn’t have to look far for examples of that; in fact it is the rule rather than the exception. Many high-value and Blue Sky ideas come from cross-functional and non-functional sectors. As an example, there is an administrative assistant who came up with a procedure in a large financial institution that saved tens of millions of dollars in state taxes. It takes recognizing that anyone who is interested can offer innovative ideas, and it takes an organization that’s interested enough to listen, to see that these opportunities are everywhere.

No one has a lock on good ideas. In fact a lot of the good, high value ideas come from cross-functional areas because people who do a job everyday often can‘t see the forest for the trees, especially at the pace they are running. In 2001, we decided to take this concept one step further by inviting all stakeholders to participate—employees, shareholders, customers, suppliers and web site visitors—with predictably awesome results.

More and more, our clients are looking to extend their innovation initiatives into communities that interact with them—beyond their organizations, so as to leverage more of the intellectual and experiential capital available to them. In my opinion, doing so in an open collaboration manner is the most interesting development in our industry in the past five years.

VB: By cross-functional do you mean employees from different departments?

Andre Laurin:
Yes, they could be teams or individuals. It’s just people who don’t do that function—I’m a guy in shipping but I see something going on over in accounting that could be improved or vice versa.

Today the average turnover in many jobs is 2 to 2 ½ years. New employees bring new skills, experience, and perspective, as well as a lot of best practices from another area, company, or industry. The business landscape has changed—we can’t do it the same way we always have.

But again, let’s not limit our efforts to employees. Many other people have great ideas that could be game-changers for your organization. All it takes to profit from them is some corporate will, accessing of the right resources, and a little heavy-lifting.

VB: So more idea sharing across companies?

Andre Laurin:
Yes. And much less information and practice stagnation

VB: You say that a successful employee suggestion program should generate at least one idea per employee per year. How does one go about achieving that goal?

Andre Laurin:
There are different ways, depending on the constituency, including traditional communication methods, creating viral buzz, issuing idea challenges, or by making it part of the annual employee performance review process.

It’s great when a company actually starts approving ideas and delivering on their advertised brand promise. It’s great when they demonstrate they will not just hear ideas, but will actually implement the good ones.

Look how many consumer websites and blogs are up now. Should I buy this GE dishwasher? Yeah you should because the majority of activist consumers have had a good experience with it. We aren’t relying on advertising anymore to buy our stuff. So why should it be any different for idea management? You’re competing for people’s mind space, for their attention, and their participation

VB: How are the ideas of employees, customers and suppliers captured in BrainBank’s Idealink?

Andre Laurin:
It depends on the company. In some cases they are comfortable allowing ideas to be submitted in an open forum, others prefer to have them directed through their organization’s structure, and others want to control what they’re doing so they engage people at a certain level once the ideas have been created. Some companies are regulated and as a result have specified limitations. It really depends on how willing or able the organization is to open its doors to let people participate.

VB: And you can be flexible about that?

Andre Laurin:
One hundred percent. The tool always has to adapt to the client, not vice versa. Change can be a difficult thing for an organization. The easier one makes it for them the better. We even revise our forms and reports to look like our clients’ so their staff doesn’t have to learn to look at something new. It’s just the content that’s different. We’re trying to make it as easy as possible for people to participate, and not get scared off.

VB: Tell me about Ideaproject.

Andre Laurin:
Ideaproject will track an idea during its implementation from start to finish. We have forms that track the implementer right through to the implementation date so they are fully accountable. The implementer has to agree to the nature of the idea, the timeline, the budget, the resources, and the people involved before they take on the mandate. Only then does the company consider the idea to be an approved idea.

There are a lot of companies with so-called approved ideas that are just sitting on a shelf; which is a process killer because people talk—especially those who’ve had a role in developing the idea and they are then are disappointed at not seeing it realized.

VB: You say Ideapath helps address the need for knowledge, experience and technology when implementing an innovation. How does that work?

Andre Laurin:
That’s an important tool. Often people who come to us have learned about innovation in a past career or they have done some research, but most don’t have a solid game plan. Even when people do have a plan we will juxtapose it against Ideapath’s compendium of features, functionalities, and best practices compiled from previous implementations.

While running through the list we discuss those ideas that look most useful and jointly select the best. We identify a deliverable deadline, and an owner. The items then are parsed out to people inside the client company and in BrainBank.

VB: Tell me how BrainBank provides training material to help employees who will be implementing new ideas.

Andre Laurin:
We provide content and materials. Which come in three forms: manuals for idea coaches, team leaders, evaluators, and process managers; white papers for process excellence; and animated flash e-learning videos for different process functions or for process role-preparation.

VB: What keeps you awake at night?

Andre Laurin:
The massive opportunity in front of us right now. I don’t just mean BrainBank. I think it’s possible to change the way business is being done in very important ways. I’ve seen that for a very long time and I want to actualize that vision.

VB: You’ve had a lot of experience with online innovation processes. What can you tell me about those processes and how has online innovation changed in recent years?

Andre Laurin:
You have to get involved now. Companies using online innovation in open collaboration now are going to have a reputation for being leaders. They will attract the best people to help them. If you plan to wait five years before getting involved you will miss the skilled and innovative people who will naturally gravitate to the early adopters.

VB: In your experience, are the Internet and other electronic tools actually helping people become more creative, innovative and capable of solving problems?

Andre Laurin:
Yes. It stimulates people and gets them thinking—but most of all, it gets them communicating.

If these tools did not have major benefits millions would not be sold everyday. The proof is in people buying them, in parting with their money.

VB: Who do you consider to be some of the masters or authorities on innovation and creativity, and who do you think are missing the mark?

Andre Laurin:
The people who are talking about open innovation and collaboration are on the money right now. The world has become a very small place in terms of expertise and focus. That has been the real benefit of the communication revolution we live in.

People who are not currently planning to do open innovation, open collaboration—if they are not in the throes of planning it now they will be in serious trouble in two years. Change is occurring right now.

In terms of open innovation, there has been a lot of fear about what happens if a company opens its idea walls and lets people see in. I have two thoughts about that. First, you can control how you do it using tools BrainBank has developed. Second if someone comes onto their website after a company decides to share its idea and that person steals it, shame on the company for not moving fast enough—if you’re not confident about executing that idea, don’t publish it.

But with all the value created through open collaboration, one still needs robust internal processes to actualize the idea’s potential and then to monetize it. That means mobilizing the right resources, in the right amount at the right time. The delicate part of this operation is in how we engage the more senior folks—the evaluators, justifiers and decision-makers. People have less discretionary time for non-core activities the higher an idea goes up the organizational pyramid. Therefore specific enabling tools need to be provided in order to make it painless and un-intrusive for this high-demand group.

Brainbank has developed idea templates that deliver mini business cases with standardized place-holders for information. They prevent managers from having to scavenge through a long email or the long tail of a blog to find the value proposition in the idea that makes it actionable for them.

Because it’s often challenging to get decision makers into the same room we also offer remote decision making and voting capabilities

VB: Many organizations are finding they are unable to recruit and retain the number and variety of experts they require for innovation and product development. Are many of your clients experiencing this problem?

Andre Laurin:
Finding the right people for the right thing at the right time is key. We have clients whose processes work incredibly well who are still sometimes challenged when it comes to getting the right person on the right task at the right time.

Everyone is doing three jobs. If you go to the average manager today and ask them if they have time to take on another project they will just laugh at you. And then they'll tell you to get out of their office. I'm exaggerating perhaps, but people are really squeezed.

Necessity being the mother of invention I think there has to be a breakthrough somewhere. I think that breakthrough is leveraging available expertise when you need it.

VB: Actually, that is the goal of IdeaConnection—to provide businesses and other organizations with access to experts who can solve problems and come up with valuable, innovative and creative solutions as needed. IdeaConnection’s database includes scientists, engineers, designers, inventors, students, retirees, innovation teachers, and professionals from many other disciplines.

Andre Laurin:
The tangent that IdeaConnection is on is a good one. Having outside experts available to help companies with innovation is a great idea. But these experts will have to prove their value every time they provide service. And that's a bit of a challenge.

It is challenging for businesses to keep pace with the rapidly changing needs of our times. Establishing a corporate climate that encourages innovation and creativity is a must.

And now that ideas can be harvested globally, and potential solutions are more plentiful, companies often need help navigating their way to, and through, appropriate change.

Andre Laurin is clearly passionate about helping companies find their way.

Andre Laurin is the Chief Executive Officer of BrainBank. Previously he was the Canadian Marketing Manager for Computer Associates and he also worked for Maritz Inc. implementing suggestion programs for global companies.

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