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Janice Francisco on Canadian Innovation

December 05 2017 | 8:12 pm | Innovation

Introduction

Janice Francisco is the CEO of BridgePoint Effect, a Toronto-based firm that helps managers and their teams solve the mystery of what it means to be innovative, and teaches them how to use creativity to get innovation done.

Operating at the intersection of learning, change, creativity and innovation, Janice brings clarity to innovation for organizations that are struggling to define and bring action to their innovation initiatives. She helps her clients build teams of “innovation champions” who understand the value innovation brings to the organization, and have the eagerness, confidence, skills and creativity to drive results.
Janice speaks internationally on applied creativity. She has developed expertise on building innovation cultures. She works with clients in the public, private, Fortune 500, and non-profit sectors.

Innovation and tech buzzwords have become so prevalent in our daily lives that it is sometimes impossible to differentiate innovative products and services from existing ones. What are your thoughts on the omnipresence of tech jargons and buzzwords in our daily vernacular?

I agree! The word “innovation” is often used in a context that isn’t really about innovation or related to it. On a positive note, however, I think the prevalence of the word “innovation” in conversations shows that people at least understand at some level that innovation is important. But, yes, the average person might not understand whether something is or isn’t really innovative.

While there’s a lot of talk about innovation, I think there is also a lot of confusion. What I see in the work I do is significant misconceptions about how one becomes innovative or how an organization becomes innovative.

Tapping into research on innovation, innovation is about something that is new and different, gets implemented, and is perceived to have value. And I think that’s the piece that is often missed. It’s not just new and different; it must also have value. Businesses may bring something to market and find that it’s not well-received because it’s not perceived by the marketplace as something that offers value.

So how do we identify an innovation with value? Who decides that an innovation has value in it, and how does this value manifest Itself?

I come from a research background, where we look at how something is innovative and offers value.
When looking at something that is perceived as “innovative,” you can look at style, meaning, is the solution elegant? You can also look at novelty, meaning the extent of newness in the solution. And, you also need to consider the value of an innovation; ultimately you need to look at whether the solution fits or meets the needs of the problem it was meant to solve. And I believe that this is something we forget: innovation has to address some problem – we need a reason to be doing it – and it’s not because we think it’s a good idea to do it.

I’ve been in situations where I’ve been asked to judge the quality of innovation or the excellence of innovation in a series of projects. However, the judging committee didn’t have a basis upon which to make that judgment. They didn’t realize they needed a context within which to decide if this thing was innovative. Without that basis, the judging was left to be very subjective rather than objective. The judgment was more about how shiny and new things appeared to be, not about how relevant is this thing to solving the problem it was developed for?

Ultimately, it’s people who decide if an innovation has value and this comes from willingness to adopt the innovation and adapt our behaviour to use it.

What would you underline as key weaknesses in the Canadian innovation ecosystem, and what are the contributing factors to these weaknesses?


The Canadian innovation ecosystem is a complex thing. It has been studied widely and I’ve been party to some of the research about it.

First, some background. Generally, in Canada, we consistently underperform, relative to other countries, in how we leverage innovation to achieve economic benefit. And over many years, our performance has been reported to be declining. I think there are two main contributors to this – one is that we’re not necessarily measuring the right things when it comes to innovation performance, and two, I believe that as a country we don’t have a strong enough strategy or understanding of the value of innovation to our economic viability. This is something that government and business leaders equally need to understand. I think that’s very important.

I’m not so sure I like the term weaknesses – I think I’d rather focus on opportunities for improvement. Maybe the weakness in our innovation ecosystem is that we keep focusing on what’s not right rather than what is right. From what I understand, there is a lot of emphasis on research and development in our ecosystem, and a lot of good things coming from this research. The opportunity for us is to get better at commercializing this research – to implement the innovations that become possible because of the research. We’ve got to think beyond getting the patent and publishing papers.

Another opportunity for improvement is our focus on technology innovation. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, I think it is skewing the picture by not allowing other areas for innovation to get the support they need. As an aside, we are a more service-based economy. There are many issues around service innovation that can be addressed, but that don’t necessarily fit our ecosystem which appears to be focused mainly on the next big thing in technology or related products. And, there is a lot of opportunity for business innovation, as in improving how we do business, how we bring things to market, and I’m not sure that really gets taken into account in our ecosystem.

I think there is another opportunity when it comes to funding and providing support to companies: when you look at the processes that organizations need to go through— research, how to make innovation happen, how to bring the innovation to the market—there are definitely some missing pieces. We provide support at the front end and the back end, but I don’t think there is a lot of support in the middle. I’ve spoken to many entrepreneurs and members of the ecosystem and it seems they feel there are innovations that should be able to make it to the next step, that just don’t.

Finally, I’m hearing there is gender disparity in our ecosystem and an area for improvement is in the funding and support available to women entrepreneurs.

What about the impact of organizations, including non-profits, that are focused on helping women in technology?

Great question! There’s one organization that I would like to highlight, and that’s SheEO (as in CEO). SheEO asks women to fund women entrepreneurs. I think it’s a great initiative. It was started by Vicki Saunders in Toronto, who is working globally to raise funds for women entrepreneurs. Her goal is to radically transform how we finance, support and celebrate women-led ventures that are creating a better world.

Based on her research, Vicki has found that, in many instances, female entrepreneurs who look for venture capital or other types of funding for their startups are consistently turned down. Or they are being asked inappropriate questions about their life and dedication to their initiative. Questions she’s found, that male entrepreneurs aren’t typically asked.

From a policy perspective, does the launch of mega funds and initiatives such as the ‘Strategic Innovation Fund’ and ‘Superclusters’ portend the arrival of central planning in Canadian innovation strategy, or are they indicative of government support for strengthening an already innovative economy?

Not necessarily. I think we are a long way from that. Having governments that are willing to focus on innovation is a good thing. However, expecting to meet all of our needs for innovation-driven growth through government action is foolhardy. When you look at countries that are recognized as innovation leaders, you’ll see that their innovation ecosystem is really primed at all levels: governments, educational institutions and the private sector. At every level, they understand the value innovation brings to the country and organizations understand their responsibility to contribute to the creation of that value. And they work together to make it happen.

So I think it’s a good idea to set up superclusters, and because this is new in Canada, we’ll have much to learn about how to make them really work for us – to really drive the innovation potential they have. In a way, it’s an experiment in innovation impact and we need to figure out how to really make them work for us. And, we’ll need to figure out how we measure their success – the way we typically measure innovation may not be a good fit to understanding the economic value we get from them.

We know a key component of innovation is collaboration and communication. Another component of that is creativity. So, if we can get the right people, in close proximity to each other, and they’re really focused on collaboration, co-creation and doing something that has shared benefit, then that is a great development and the rewards can be great.


What motivates an organization to become more innovative, and how much does the availability of government support encourage it? Are your clients interested in becoming better innovators because of their reliance on government funding?

I don’t think the availability of government funding should be a key motivator for businesses to become better innovators. It can be daunting to access that funding. It’s a help, but the need for innovation has to come from a more direct business need.

So, the question becomes, what would drive an organization to do something about innovation beyond thinking it’s a good idea to do it?

I think it is about change and uncertainty. For example, you realize that your competitive position is being eroded. If you’re smart and if you take the issue seriously, you do something about it. If there are changes to your market, whether by local or global factors, you’ll figure out to do something about it, and figuring that out takes some innovation. Change factors, competitive factors, issues around productivity, and the fear of having your business impacted negatively—these all need some creativity and innovation to come up with the answers.

There are organizations that understand they need to be innovative and have a real desire to actualize that because of who they are –Google and Apple for example; it’s part of their DNA. Then there’s everybody else; they are chugging along doing their business. They realize things are changing and they sense the uncertainty around them, and they know they need to start to think and behave differently.

Therefore, I don’t think companies want to become innovative solely because of government support and funding. Companies that are primed for R&D grants are technology and manufacturing companies. The challenge I see is how we might apply these R&D expenditures to commercialization—we need to think beyond the innovation and understand how to get it to the market.

And your thoughts on why there are very few billion-dollar startups (unicorns) coming from Canada?

It’s not just that few are coming from Canada. Research from Doblin Group shows most come from the US, and primarily from California’s Silicon Valley. And in other countries like the UK, India, China, Australia and New Zealand, the research I’ve seen shows only one unicorn has come out of each of those places.

I don’t think our record in Canada is because we don’t have the potential. I suspect it has to do with how we are focused, our willingness as business people to take risks, and the desire to look beyond our own borders – to think globally, rather than locally or nationally. There’s a mindset and orientation for innovation in organizations that become unicorns. And, from what I understand, an interesting synthesis of technology and other factors that come into play. Unicorns grow out of deep collaboration, a willingness to push the boundaries of thinking on what’s possible, risk-taking and skilled integration of existing solutions—meaning they often use stuff that already exists and arrange it differently into new and useful configurations.

Unicorns are exciting and they are few and far between. Of course, they’re very appealing to entrepreneurs and to the innovation ecosystem, but they start with people with the right mindset—a mindset with strong innovation skills such as creativity, problem solving and continuous improvement; risk assessment and risk-taking skills; relationship building and communication skills; and implementation skills, and of course, commercialization skills. And this is something that research by the Conference Board of Canada’s Centre for Business Innovation has shown many Canadian organizations are struggling with.

In the work I do, I help people in organizations build innovation skills so they are better prepared to recognize and respond to opportunities for innovation. And I do this work with leaders in organizations who are working to understand how to leverage innovation to their benefit.

So, if we can address the problem of how businesses are leveraging innovation in Canada, and get more of them doing that really well, then I think we’ll open up the door to increasing the likelihood of unicorns flying out of Canada.


This interview was conducted by Reza Akhlaghi, a digital content and social media strategist with RDP Associates.


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