Why innovation should be our top priority

Why innovation should be our top priority

If the past six months of living in a global pandemic has taught Atlantic Canadian businesses anything, it’s that timely, strategic innovation is the key to surmounting almost everything – even a pandemic.

The evidence is growing. Companies that have embraced innovation as a part of their culture – where it’s baked into their corporate DNA – are emerging with new opportunities to exploit and, in some cases, are in a stronger position to compete in an entirely new and more challenging world.

That shouldn’t come as any surprise. For our team, we deal with innovation all the time; it’s our business.  We’ve invested over $100 million, and leveraged $457 million more from other sources, for start-up companies and applied research projects ranging from life sciences to advanced manufacturing in New Brunswick.

The companies we connect with every day are nimble, agile, and motivated to anticipate and prepare for what’s coming around the corner. When they spy the first sign of an obstacle or disruption, they naturally pivot, evolve, create, and restructure. That positions them to grow and commercialize new products and services just about anywhere, anytime, and under unpredictable circumstances. 

That’s not to say they’re all coming through the COVID-19 pandemic unscathed. This global pandemic is the worst shock to our collective systems anybody has seen in our generation, a forced shut down and slow reopening. Extreme and fast. Many smart, high-growth firms have had to lay off people, slashing operating costs, even engineer new business models for themselves and their customers. The point is they’re up to the task and equipped to persevere. They expect the unexpected, and the element of surprise doesn’t faze them. 

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for every business, either here in Atlantic Canada or globally. Those that still cling to the old idea that innovation is a frill – nice, perhaps, but not necessary – will have a much harder time getting back on their feet. It’s not easy moving forward when you don’t know what the ‘new normal’ is.

Fortunately, there are clues. I believe innovative companies tend to share an optimistic outlook that every business – from the family farm to the server farm – can appreciate. And that outlook dominates their operations in both good and bad times; it enables their resilience.

They know, and this holds true for start-ups or applied research; it’s that innovation is not a goal in itself; it’s a means to achieving strategic objectives that lead to growth, market penetration, and share. What’s more, they know that the loftier those goals are, the more tuned to business conditions and trends they become, and the more able they are to explore new avenues for generating revenue.

If, for example, one family restaurant’s goal is to serve the best fare for the best price as fast as possible but is forced to close its doors due to COVID, it can shut down and lose customers – perhaps forever. Or, it could have delivered its version of ‘meals on wheels’, offering the same food to more people in a socially safe way. When the ‘all clear’ order came through, they could reopen their bricks and mortar location – now augmented by a successful, Internet-based food-service business.

Of course, there are other, more complex illustrations of innovation in action. But the principles are always the same: foresight, knowledge, dexterity, and creativity. And remember: The don’ts can be just as instructive as the dos. 

Invest in a talented team; ask them what they see on the horizon. Adopt the best practices other companies adopt; you can learn from them. Resist the temptation to go back to the same old business as usual; a fresh outlook may be what you need. Iterate, fail, iterate, and succeed, keep iterating, sometimes the resources you need, and the answers are right in front of you.

As tough as the last few months have been, Atlantic Canada is full of entrepreneurial, innovative promise. A lot of this is pent up precisely because of the pandemic. But as a business leader, ask yourself: Are new partnerships out there? Are there new ways to forge local success stories? Are there inventive resource-sharing schemes with other businesses or researchers you can explore? Are there innovative, high-growth Atlantic companies that you support or could use your timely investment right now?

Innovation is about strategic change, and strategic change combined with superior execution equals high performance. That’s how many Atlantic businesses have survived the past six months. It’s how many more will thrive in the future. •

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