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We certainly live in interesting times!

Here’s what I’ve noticed in this new era of hyper-turmoil and uncertainty — many organizations are turning off their innovation engines, waiting to see what happens next in a world in which volatility is the new normal.

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The New Yorker had a great article in 2009 after the financial meltdown, “Hanging tough,” that outlined  how some companies choose to ensure that they stay innovative in recessionary times – while others did not. In the context of the uncertainty of today, it’s worth a read. For example, they contrast two cereal companies: one that chose to focus on innovation despite uncertainty, while another did not.

“You’d think that everyone would want to emulate Kellogg’s success, but, when hard times hit, most companies end up behaving more like Post. They hunker down, cut spending, and wait for good times to return. They make fewer acquisitions, even though prices are cheaper. They cut advertising budgets. And often they invest less in research and development. They do all this to preserve what they have.”

My recent discussions with Fortune 1000 CEOs and senior executives in both UK and the US certainly indicate that this is happening again. Post-Brexit, uncertainty and aggressive indecision is roiling the C-suite in the UK — deferring decisions has become the norm. In the US, the never-ending election has placed a pause on most big decisions — inaction has settled in like a wet-sponge!

Big question – in this context, is the UK done? Can America innovate again, or is this a cultural and leadership ‘new normal?’ Here’s what I know – the winners and losers of the future are being determined right now!

Yet history has taught us, over and over again, that those who are aggressive with innovation, and who align themselves to future trends in times of uncertainty, are those who win in the long run. For years, I’ve talked on stage and in my leadership meetings of the key observation by GE’s Chief Innovation Consultant. Simple, powerful guidance: breakthrough performers manage to accomplish great things because of a decision to focus on innovation right in the middle of an economic challenge or an era of uncertainty– rather than waiting till they came into a recovery phase.

The research found that during the oil shock of 70’s, 80’s and 90’s recession, and the 2000 dot com bust, of those companies surveyed, 70% of companies barely survived, 30% died, but 10% became breakthrough performers. Noted the GE head of innovation: it was explicitly “…because of choices they made in the recession.”

So it really comes down to this: when do you innovate? Are you going to wait until you are comfortable that an era of uncertainty is over? Bad decision — because economic and political volatility is the new normal!

Everything we have learned has taught us that the winners were those who decided that it was an important thing to keep moving ahead despite massive amounts of uncertainty. Get out of your future-funk! Try this clip from a keynote I undertook on stage after the meltdown of 2008-2009. “Innovators get out in front of the recession“.

Consider this: the New Yorker article is pretty blunt with it’s findings on innovation-losers:

  • “numerous studies have shown that companies that keep spending on acquisition, advertising, and R. & D. during recessions do significantly better than those which make big cuts”
  • “a McKinsey study of the 1990-91 recession found that companies that remained market leaders or became serious challengers during the downturn had increased their acquisition, R. & D., and ad budgets, while companies at the bottom of the pile had reduced them”
  • “Uncertainty is always a part of business, but in a recession it dominates everything else: no one’s sure how long the downturn will last, how shoppers will react, whether we’ll go back to the way things were before or see permanent changes in consumer behavior. So it’s natural to focus on what you can control: minimizing losses and improving short-term results.”

Innovation winners?

  • “Kraft introduced Miracle Whip in 1933 and saw it become America’s best-selling dressing in six months; Texas Instruments brought out the transistor radio in the 1954 recession; Apple launched the iPod in 2001.”

Read the article. It’s powerful stuff!

Given that, what do you do? Change your culture and set out to achieve breakthrough results despite uncertainty!


Here is some more innovation-soup for your innovation-soul!

Last week I was invited to speak in Cincinnati, Ohio by Techsolve, an organization that provides assistance to the manufacturing sector in Ohio

It was a tremendously fun keynote, because my talk was being transmitted — with both video and slides being shown — to remote locations in Cleveland, Dayton, Akron and elsewhere. Overall, we had about 350 people participating, representing a good cross-section of small and medium sized manufacturers from throughout the state.

My theme was “What do world class innovators do that others don’t do,” with a sub-theme of “Manufacturing 2.0” – what is it that leading manufacturers are doing to ensure they can thrive despite challenging economic times?

As with many of my keynotes, I used a series of text-message based polls to interact with the audience. It’s a very effective way of delivering a keynote in which the audience is fully engaged and active throughout my talk.

And as with most keynotes, I led with an opening survey in the first few minutes, to gauge the attitude in the room, in which I asked, “When do you think we’ll see an economic recovery. In moments, I had close to 100 responses.

And I must admit, the majority response surprised me. I do these text messages across North America to a huge range of organizations, and for the last two years, the consensus answer everywhere has been “2 to 4 years.”

Not in Ohio — almost half the respondents see that they see a global economic recovery happening now! That’s a lot of optimism!

They're more optimistic in Ohio than you think!

To be fair though, half the respondents also believe that the recession is still hanging on and that we won’t see progress for at least six months or more.

Which gave me a chance to hammer home a key point I often use with my audiences — and that comes from a study by GE which found that organizations who chose to innovate during a recession often emerged as breakthrough performers “on the other side.” In other words, the time to focus on innovation is now!

On to the next issue — I often frame innovation for the audience as pursuing a wide variety of opportunities to “run the business better, grow the business, and transform the business.”

What’s the priority in Ohio? Again, the results might surprise you!

Focused on growth and transformation!

Innovation aimed at “running the business better” is often the major focus for organizations in a recession – it involves cost cutting, and often major steps to save money for mere survival.

Clearly a good part of my audience had moved beyond that, and were thinking about growth and transformative opportunities!

This is great stuff, since it shows a real mind-set of innovation in the state of Ohio.

I was feeling playful by this point — and zipped in another text message poll further into my talk. Given their mindset, I asked the room, was there a fair picture being portrayed in the media about the state of manufacturing in Ohio? Not at all!

What do they think about the media?

Fascinating stuff. Overall, it was a great day, and I will post a longer blog about the manufacturing trends I focused on. Did it go well? I put up a slide part way through, to see how I was doing with the audience. The results came flying in:

Reaction to Jim Carroll's keynote

I received quite a few email messages, including this one from particular fellow — so it’s great to have an impact and provide some encouragement!

I wanted to drop you a quick line and thank you for a great morning this past Wednesday when you spoke at theTechsolve/Magnet Ohio simulcast.

Your presentation was outstanding and really validated much of what I am trying to do at my company. I am the General Manager at a company that has been very out of touch with innovation and has been a sleeping giant. Our new team is driving significant change. I needed a dose of motivation and your presentation certainly provided it to me!

Thanks for taking the time to share your exciting views and vision with us, Ohio companies certainly need it!

Is there a manufacturing sector in Ohio! You bet!

A quick video on innovation: how do you achieve breakthrough results?

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