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Innovation: The Key to Entrepreneurial Success

September 3, 2014

“What will the city of the future look like?” “What use can an angular section of glass tubing be put to?” or “Who’s going to look after us when we’re old?” These were just some of the questions discussed a few weeks ago at the International Women’s Forum (iwf) in the German capital city, Berlin. “Innovation” was the main theme of the conference, which was attended by around 700 female executives from 32 different countries around the world. The Forum, which has been supported by FedEx for over a decade, takes place twice a year at different locations and examines the hot topics of the present and the future.

As the Director of Innovation at FedEx, I had the pleasure of addressing the audience at the opening reception.

During the event, I also had the opportunity to gain a fascinating insight into many different countries, cultures and companies and understand how innovations are developed elsewhere and what effect they have on a company.

Innovation – it’s a frame of mind, not about company size

Attending events like the iwf and listening to experts from a host of different fields is so much more than just a networking opportunity. These events are truly inspirational and rewarding. They help to encourage the kind of ‘thinking outside the box’ mentality we promote in our FedEx innovation team.

As a company we need to always remain at the cutting edge of technology by using our own creative energies. This helps us to stay competitive in an ever-evolving marketplace.

However, continuous innovation is not only essential for big global players like FedEx; small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) can also benefit from adopting original and creative thinking. You may ask why innovations are important for companies of all sizes. For a start, innovations are crucial because they drive a company forward, improve the service to existing customers and identify new ones. They also help to differentiate a company from its competitors. Without innovations, a business quickly becomes commoditised and less relevant to the marketplace and customers. Customers want the best solution for the best value – no matter where they buy. Technology is changing so quickly that it is imperative to understand that paradigm and stay ahead of it.

I have reflected on how SMEs can go about embracing innovation so here are my top three tips for SMEs on how to keep your innovative spirit alive:

1. Stay on top of the trends and technologies that impact your industry and your customers.

2. Be agile and adapt to changing market needs. Try to be the pacesetter for your customer’s experience.

3. Take risks…but do so only in a calculated and managed way. If you never take a risk, you are never going to experience innovations.

I´m often asked where inspiration and new ideas come from. This can be much more straightforward than many people think. It is not only about monitoring industry trends. Actually, children are a great source of innovative thinking a as they are so creative without boundaries. Kids see a world of what is possible and have a real can-do attitude.

Smaller companies benefit from short decision-making processes

I am convinced that the concept of innovation is more of a mindset and a different way to look at things. Many innovations actually start in small businesses that grow from someone’s original idea. Innovation can sometimes be easier to implement in a smaller company. It really boils down to the culture in any given organization and their focus on customer needs and technology.  Smaller companies have a certain advantage in this respect given that they are able to implement new approaches and concepts quicker and more easily, as a result of having less layers of management to review and discuss. That is the experience we have had when working with SMEs on a daily basis, for example when we support them with our shipping solutions which help them to expand their businesses internationally. I also try to adopt this approach inside FedEx and streamline the decision-making processes in my team of 16 employees.

Michelle Proctor after her speech at the International Women's Forum
Michelle Proctor (right), Director of Innovation at FedEx after her speech at the International Women’s Forum (iwf) 2014 in Berlin and Sein Chew, Vice President of iwf.

Innovation: A Case for Global Optimism
Panel discussion on the topic of “Innovation: A Case for Global Optimism?” at the International Women’s Forum (iwf) 2014 in Berlin.

Innovation often occurs away from the supposed core business

More often than not, companies are innovative when they look at areas that have no discernible connection to their core business. Look for those customers that are ‘extreme users’ – those that have unique needs that might seem hard to meet. Some sports equipment manufacturers, for example, expressly design for customers that plan to climb Mount Everest or other challenging mountains. That is an incredibly specific task for a specific user group with very unique needs. That said, I can still buy a jacket suitable for Mount Everest and get great benefits from it – even though I have no plans to scale a mountain. It meets the needs of both the extreme user as well as the everyday consumer who also wants a good quality jacket with cutting edge features.

Next, look at how applications from one industry might apply to another and examine common technologies or processes used that you could leverage to your own advantage. This principle applies to medical doctors and the oil industry. Sounds too different on the surface, right? If you take a closer look at both fields, however, you can see they both are tasked with processes that involve transporting certain substances, using pumps and generating a certain pressure. In the medical profession, this substance is blood which our bodies transport through our veins driven by our hearts. The oil industry has devised a system based on this: oil is transported through pipes which are powered by large pumps. Locomotion is also achieved here by applying pressure. When you think of it in those terms, the parallels become obvious and solving problems can take on a new approach when one industry “borrows or learns” from another.

It is indeed challenging for companies to be innovative – a challenge that requires a significant amount of effort. I, however, consider this effort to be essential in achieving economic success. Innovations are essential, because they drive a company forward, better serve existing customers and identify new customers. They also help a company to differentiate itself from competitors and remain competitive – no matter how big or small, established or new on the market a company is. My recommendation is: go for it – be bold and innovate!


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