Embed Innovation in Corporate Culture for Best Results

A conversation with Charlie Prather, initial Director of the DuPont Center for Innovation and President, Bottom Line Innovation Associates, Inc.
By Jo Grogan
Charlie Prather has been in the innovation arena for a quarter century, having shaped the DuPont Center for Innovation from its inception, and working with Fortune 100 companies to help them develop innovation as a core competency.

His view is that innovation is even more important today for companies to survive in the current economic environment.

Jo Grogan (JG): How important is innovation in today’s market?

Charles PratherCharlie Prather: It is very important. Companies need to solve critical problems in unexpected ways to keep ahead of downturns.

JG: What do you think companies should do to keep innovation at the forefront in product and service development?

Charlie Prather: Companies need to know that culture shifts and change start at the top. It won’t work if those at the top are not committed and supportive of an innovative environment. Companies should embed innovation in the culture such that it permeates the organization.
One example of culture shifts that are led from top can be found in what is now a part of top business school curriculum as a case study. When DuPont wanted to improve its safety record, the top leadership at the company led the effort. Everyone was trained, goals set, and safety was made the highest priority. The result was that DuPont became the safest company to work for, known for its safety record.

Innovation needs to be elevated to the level in companies that safety was at DuPont in order to stay ahead of the curve.

We’re seeing a troubling trend in this respect, where innovation is being put on the back burner. The Chief Innovation Officer title is becoming less and less common. In some companies, this is appropriate, because they have embraced the innovation culture. In others, however, the focus has shifted to survival instead of creation of new products, solutions, and approaches. They are hunkering down.

“Culture Shifts and change starts at the top.” Charles Prather

JG: What tools do you use for ideation/problem solving/creativity/decision making?

Charlie Prather: Ideation-TRIZ is very important to solving engineering and technical problems. IdeaFisher can trigger out of the box thinking. Imaginatik created Idea Central, through which ideas bubble up and are given a home and adopted by a sponsor who helps usher them through. It’s also a good tool for executives to put out problems as a challenge for team members from Boston to Belgium to solve.

JG: Have you heard of or used online virtual collaborative problem solving services such as those provided by IdeaConnection.com?

Charlie Prather: I’ve heard of them, but I have not used them.

JG: What are the barriers to using these services, and how might they be overcome?

Charlie Prather: Companies want assurance that their intellectual property rights are protected. They want it spelled out clearly who owns the rights and that none of the consultants from the site will steal them. Agreements are only as good as the people who sign them, so it is very important to have a vetting process in place to reassure the companies that the experts are trustworthy, ethical, and honorable.

JG: What training have you done for innovation (e.g., Six Sigma, Edward DeBono)?

Charlie Prather: At DuPont, Ed DeBono’s workshops, and Michael Michalko’s “Cracking Creativity”. We trained internal groups of trainers who would then go in and train the staff. Our goal was to set the environment for innovation, to encourage sharing of ideas. Ideas that aren’t shared are useless for innovation. Creativity is an individual trait, but innovation is more social and requires the sharing of ideas to be effective.

JG: I see that we are running out of time for this interview. Are there any final thoughts you would like to share with the innovation community?

Charlie Prather: Yes, I would like to recommend that they read “Applied imagination” by Alex Osborn. It’s an old book, from 1957. He coined the term “Brainstorming,” and his ideas are timeless and useful. It is useful to start with the basics and integrate those theories and suggested practices with the latest thinking.

JG: Thank you for spending time with me today and sharing your ideas with our readers.

Charlie Prather: You are most welcome.

Feedback Welcome: If you would like to comment on the above article, please feel free to contact me. If you would like to suggest other innovation decision makers for me to interview, please just let me know.

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