Management Articles


Innovation and Organizational Learning Pathways and Pitfalls

By: Jim Clemmer

Jim Clemmer is an international keynote speaker, workshop leader, author, and president of The CLEMMER Group, a North American network of organization, team, and personal improvement consultants based in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada. His other bestsellers include Firing on All Cylinders: The Service/Quality System for High-Powered Corporate Performance, and his most recent book, Growing the Distance: Timeless Principles for Personal, Career, and Family Success. His web site is

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"Finding is reserved for the searchers. We don't find what we need; we find what we search for. Needing is not a prerequisite to getting value. You can't be a needer, you have to be a searcher."
    Jim Rohn, successful entrepreneur and personal effectiveness author and speaker
  • Make sure the "voice of the market" pervades every part of your organization. Bring customers into your company offices and plants for visits, joint problem solving and planning sessions, celebrations, focus groups, conferences, barbecues, presentations, and the like. Get everyone in your organization out to see customers or into the real world on a regular basis.

  • Make your senior managers responsible for at least some business development and ongoing customer service. They should be spending 25 - 35 percent or more of their time with customers (the same amount of time should also be spent with external and internal partners). Ensure that some part of their compensation is linked to your team or organization's new business or product development success. Don't allow managers to only cost cut and quality control their way to profitability and performance bonuses. Make sure it's balanced with innovation and growth.

  • A favorite example of servant-leader innovation is the architect who waited to put the sidewalks into his new residential complex until the buildings' customers had worn paths in the grass. Then he laid the sidewalks over those paths.

  • The people selling in your target markets and serving your customers are innovating every day to meet unexpected needs, beat out a competitor, or capitalize on a new opportunity. Unless you have a user friendly, easy process (not an administrative bureaucracy) for gathering all that experience and market intelligence, you're recklessly squandering one your organization's richest sources of innovation. You might hire a business student to seek out and document all this innovation and entrepreneurship.

  • You should also build an ongoing process to keep this experience base updated and widely available to everyone. This, rather than strategic planning, is the kind of planning a strategic improvement team should be working on. But you want to be sure that they keep the process easy to use and user friendly.

  • Identify your leading-edge external customers and partners and bring them into your product and service development processes. Ideally, these are customers and partners who extensively use your products and services. But they keep pushing everything and everybody to the limit. They are always looking for new and better ways to use your products and services.

  • Find out what problems they're trying to solve that no one else in your market provides solutions for. But don't confuse leading-edge customers with those that scream the loudest, are the most loyal, or give you the most business. Many good or vocal customers don't push your thinking or teach you how to apply your product and services in new ways. Leading-edge customers are often "bleeding edge" customers as well. They're not always easy or fun to deal with.

  • Establish active user and support networks. Provide regular face-to-face, electronic, print, or audio-video forums to help customers, external partners (like distributors and suppliers), and internal partners exchange experiences, ideas, and problems solve. Capture and disseminate all this learning throughout your organization.

  • Keep asking your customers and partners lots of "what if. . . questions." Take good notes and circulate them throughout your organization. Beware of people trying to write all this off as just wishful thinking. Remind them that somebody's wishful thinking brought us every service and product we use today, developed our modern economy, and gave us one of the richest lifestyles in the history of the world. Leaders find ways to translate wishful thinking into the "logical and obvious" products and services we eventually take for granted.
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