Werner Schmidt has a long history of leadership both in business and politics.
Schmidt was an MP for 13 years for Kelowna-Lake Country where his duties included being the vice-chairman of the Standing Committee on Industry, Natural Resources, Science and Technology. He was also a member of the board or governors of the University of Alberta and was involved in landscaping and ranching related businesses before serving the public. Originally from Coaldale and now living in Edmonton the 80-year-old is now mostly retired but he does take time to mentor and counsel young leaders.
Schmidt is a wealth of knowledge on the innovation file and what it takes for companies to jump the gap from idea to execution. We sat down for a chat.
Productivity Alberta: What is the most important thing people and businesses should know about innovation?
Werner Schmidt: There are two sides to innovation. There are new ideas and imagination and things that should be done. But there’s also the other side of innovation, the execution of the idea. There are a lot of businesses and organizations that have ideas flowing around but they never get around to doing it.
PA: Why is execution so hard?
WS: Most organizations are not created to innovate. They are created and are designed to maintain ongoing operations. However companies must innovate enough to compete and succeed in an environment where other innovation is taking place. The other thing is that executing on innovation involves change and hard word, two things which most people are not terribly fond of.
PA: What can be done to help innovators bridge the gap between idea and execution
WS: That’s an excellent question. I should point out first that I’m indebted to many authors and thinkers out there on this subject. I didn’t invent the wheel on this one.
One idea I like in this application is the SMaC recipe from author Jim Collins from his book Great By Choice. A SMaC recipe is a “specific,” “methodical,” and “consistent” recipe for organizational success. It’s a set of durable operating practices that put out a replicable and consistent success formula. That’s a very significant statement. When you want to bring in an innovation you don’t change the whole thing you look at which ingredients in the recipe need to be changed.
The other important insight is the distinction between bullets and cannonballs. Bullets are small test cases that allow you to test things out. If it works then you can develop cannonballs, a major project, a major innovation.
PA: What books would you recommend for people interested in being able to execute on their innovation projects.
WS: Well, Great by Choice by Jim Collins has already been mentioned but a really good one is The Other Side of Execution: Solving the Execution Challenge by Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble. There are other Jim Collin’s books I would recommend, Good to Great is wonderful. Certainly I would suggest Bill George as well who wrote True North. If you want to get into leadership that’s a whole other thing, this is strictly on innovation.
PA: What is the link between strong leadership and improving productivity and executing on innovation programs?
WS: It is the main ingredient. Innovation will not take place without a leader. We should make the distinction right now between a leader and a manager. Leaders lead an organization in a particular direction to achieve a particular goal and purpose. The manager finds the best way to get there.
PA: If you want to see wholesale productivity improvement how much attention should be paid to leadership along with the nuts and bolts of things like lean processes and process improvement?
WS: It has to focus on the desire to improve and produce at a lower cost and a higher quality. If we want to do that we will find ways to do it. If we are complacent nothing will change.
PA: Leadership doesn’t just come from the boardroom does it.
WS: They’re on the assembly line, they’re on the shop floor. If we really want to improve productivity and competitiveness we have to listen to those people and empower them to actually try some of those new ideas. That means taking on certain amounts of risk and if we’re not prepared to do that then we won’t improve.