Don’t fear fail­ure, business lead­ers told

Ot­tawa needs to shake off ‘com­pla­cency’ to re­gain sta­tus as tech leader, CEO says

Ottawa Business Journal - - TECHNOLOGY - BY DAVID SALI david@greatriver.ca

Com­pla­cency and fear of fail­ure are sti­fling in­no­va­tion and eco­nomic growth in Canada, a panel of Ot­tawa-based CEOs told a gath­er­ing of lo­cal business ex­ec­u­tives ear­lier this month.

For­mer Nor­dion head Steve West drew on his ex­pe­ri­ence of 11 years liv­ing and work­ing in Asia, where he said en­trepreneurs are gen­er­ally more will­ing to chal­lenge the sta­tus quo and are hun­grier for suc­cess than their Cana­dian coun­ter­parts.

“I think we’re very com­pla­cent in Canada,” said Mr. West, who is now the pres­i­dent of West­max Group, a con­sult­ing company. “Maybe that’s be­cause, you know, things aren’t so bad. We don’t have that cri­sis that re­ally mo­ti­vates us to do things that are out of the box.”

The for­mer CEO of Nor­dion said he used to lie awake at night strug­gling to fig­ure out new ways to in­no­vate when he led the heav­ily reg­u­lated med­i­cal iso­tope company.

One day, he said, a group of en­gi­neers at Nor­dion sug­gested the firm branch out into med­i­cal mar­i­juana. While the idea ul­ti­mately didn’t gain any trac­tion, “what it said to me was at least a group of peo­ple were think­ing out­side the box,” Mr. West told the crowd at the Mill Street Brew Pub. “The fact that they had enough courage to come to me was good.”

He was one of four CEOs speak­ing

at the panel dis­cus­sion on strate­gies for in­no­va­tion hosted by man­age­ment con­sult­ing firm Strat­ford Man­agers as part of its Ex­ec­u­tive Per­spec­tives se­ries.

Strat­ford CEO Jim Roche also looked out­side Canada’s bor­ders to il­lus­trate this coun­try’s need to cul­ti­vate a more in­no­va­tive business spirit. He said tech en­trepreneurs here are some­times too quick to give up on ideas that don’t pay in­stant div­i­dends.

“We as a cul­ture, as Cana­di­ans and cer­tainly in Ot­tawa, we tend not to cel­e­brate fail­ure,” he said. “If somebody starts some­thing and fails, that’s usu­ally a bad sign. Whereas in Sil­i­con Val­ley … if you try some­thing and fail, that means you’ve learned some­thing. I think there’s a lot to be said for em­brac­ing fail­ure.”

While Ward Grif­fin, the head of print­ing company Lowe-Martin Group, said ex­ces­sive gov­ern­ment red tape is of­ten cited as a ma­jor ob­sta­cle to in­no­va­tion, another pan­elist, LiveQoS CEO Martin Horne, said it’s up to en­trepreneurs to work through those bar­ri­ers.

“I think if you’re re­ally gonna do it, you’ve just got to do it,” he said.

It’s im­por­tant for lead­ers of in­no­va­tive firms to clearly com­mu­ni­cate their vi­sion to em­ploy­ees so ev­ery­one un­der­stands the company’s goals and buys in, the pan­elists said.

Hir­ing good staff to ex­e­cute a plan for in­no­va­tion is also key, Mr. Grif­fin added.

“I think you’ve got to find the right peo­ple that en­joy that kind of pace, that kind of change,” he said.

In­no­va­tive think­ing ap­plies not just to tech­nol­ogy, but also to business and mar­ket­ing mod­els, Mr. Roche said.

He said that dur­ing his time as pres­i­dent and CEO of Tun­dra Semi­con­duc­tor, the company once spent mil­lions of dol­lars de­vel­op­ing a cut­ting-edge prod­uct, only to be beaten to mar­ket by multi­na­tional com­peti­tor IBM. Mr. Roche made the dif­fi­cult decision to scrap Tun­dra’s own prod­uct, which was still in de­vel­op­ment, but found a cre­ative ap­proach to turn that set­back into a ma­jor op­por­tu­nity.

After con­vinc­ing IBM that its prod­uct didn’t re­ally fit in with Big Blue’s over­all business plan, Tun­dra bought it, a move that ended up pay­ing off.

“We turned around and sold the crap out of this prod­uct and made a ton of money out of it,” Mr. Roche said. “The thing about in­no­va­tion is, it doesn’t just ap­ply to tech­nol­ogy.”

Ot­tawa has few emerg­ing tech firms to re­place fallen gi­ants of the past such as Nor­tel.

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