Kellogg World Alumni Magazine Spring 2007Kellogg School of Management
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Big ideas and how to put them to work

The art of innovation requires leaders who create vibrant interaction

By Romi Herron

An Einstein of accounting? A Picasso of P/E?

Not so far-fetched, considering how business schools have embraced creativity in ways that formerly only liberal arts programs were expected to do. That's because "we've recognized that new ideas are the lifeblood of business," says Andrew Razeghi. The adjunct associate professor of marketing at the Kellogg School believes innovation as a discipline has come into its own — good news for companies who need to find a way to stand out in a crowded marketplace.

But innovation is tricky business, Razeghi says, especially in big companies.

"Within large corporations, we have elephants learning to dance," he admits. As they do, chief executives are turning to a "broker model," which holds that creative teams, including a chief innovation officer, deliver better results when tasked with finding ideas, managing intellectual property and leveraging both to solve problems.

One of those charting a course for marketing innovation is James Ruehlmann '80, vice president of branding for Jimmy Dean Sausage at Sara Lee Corp. Last year, the Kellogg graduate increased sales in the company's frozen sausage division by $100 million. How?  With swashbuckling camaraderie. To unite his workers, Ruehlmann introduced a "pirate" theme at Jimmy Dean, complete with pirate décor, slang and performance prizes.

"We are ruthless in the way we pursue the objective but we also want to have fun," says Ruehlmann. "Pirates are rebellious, as are we, inside, and we try to tap that adventurousness." And, like pirates, he says his team isn't afraid to appropriate ideas and apply them in a new way. "It's been said that no idea is new; it's just a rehash. So let's unlock the creativity and build on these ideas."

See the related article: Kellogg makes house call to computer giant

The Jimmy Dean marketing team is charged with creating ways to reach customers with the company's message — no easy task in the TiVo age when commercials can be zapped. But Ruehlmann says the company's "360-degree marketing" push strives to engage the customer invitingly.

Hitting the road with a colorful semi-trailer adorned with the company's sun-splashed logo to serve free breakfast sandwich to consumers is one way that Ruehlmann's team reaches out. He says the effort, dubbed the "Happy Breakfast Tour," allows the company to take its brand right to the customer.  "We also do it with the Sun campaign, our segment of happy news on the Internet, interrupting the consumer's work with positive, cheerful news," he adds.

Collaboration has put wind in the sails for Jimmy Dean, just as it has done at other companies, including Procter & Gamble where its "Connect + Develop" initiative is designed to form creative partnerships with innovators inside and outside the firm. Similarly, Google engineers are given "20 percent time," one day a week where they are free to work with other teams on projects the participants feel passionate about, even when the work falls outside an individual's assigned job.

Such collaboration requires the right culture, says Clinical Professor of Entrepreneurship Barry Merkin. In the permission-granting Kellogg environment, students have long been trusted co-creators of the academic experience, with team-based learning serving as a hallmark of the school.

"I know of no other school that challenges its students to contribute their insights and creativity," says Merkin, noting that students significantly influence classes, clubs, conferences and other events — a circumstance that develops collaborative leadership skills that Kellogg graduates take into the organizations that recruit them.

"Today's world is so complex, competitive and fast-moving that the days of the Lone Ranger are gone," Merkin says, citing Southwest Airlines as an example of a company who understands this and has created an innovative culture. "Very few leaders can figure everything out and do everything themselves. Unless there is a true team spirit, the institution will fall behind."

Companywide creativity

As senior partner and president of Kuczmarski & Associates, a consultancy for the management of new products and services, innovation and marketing strategy, Thomas Kuczmarski agrees that the No. 1 obstacle to effective innovation is a lack of a proper culture that trusts, and challenges, people to excel.

"The No. 2 barrier is a management perception that innovation deserves its own organization and resources," not appreciating the importance of making innovation cross-functional across all departments, says Kuczmarski, who is also a Kellogg adjunct associate professor of marketing. "It can't just be marketing or R&D [that's being creative]."

Other Kellogg faculty, including Professor Mohanbir Sawhney and Adjunct Assistant Professor Robert Wolcott, share this conviction in their essay "Seven Innovation Myths." Among these is the belief that new ideas germinate in a single department. In reality, "innovation is a company-wide competency," they argue. They also debunk the view that having too few new ideas is the main problem for most companies. It's not, they say. But being unable to nurture existing ideas is. And while intellectual freedom can produce splendid results, teams also need structure to excel. Give employees plenty of imaginative room, but harness their efforts with the necessary frameworks. "Structure and process do not have to be the enemies of innovation," write Sawhney and Wolcott.

That process for Kuczmarski begins by considering customer needs. Without these insights, "you'll end up with nothing, no matter how many flip charts and brainstorming meetings you have," he says.

For Ruehlmann, creating innovative solutions hinges on every member of the team striving for exemplary performance — including himself.

Says the Kellogg alum: "The question I ask when I demand excellence in innovation is, 'Am I doing my job better than the person holding my role in our competitor's company?'

"The code of our team is that with our innovations, with our marketing and our PR, we won't let each other down."

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