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Creating a culture of innovation in Manitoba

Experts point to leadership, creativity as catalyst for culture change

Innovation is a word we hear frequently, especially when it comes to the world of work. As the modern labour force evolves faster and faster in the 21st century, we are seeing a shift within working culture to build workplaces that are creative, cohesive and competitive. This also begs the question: how can organizations embrace and grow innovation in Manitoba?

Innovation culture
Often discussed by companies, the term ‘innovation culture’ is one where ideas and creativity are encouraged and nurtured and come to the forefront. “It’s accepting the importance of innovation and becoming more adaptable as change velocity continues to increase across most industries,” says Al McLeod, who served as a former vice-president of innovation with Wawanesa Insurance. “You can be swept up in the change, or you can get in front of it, but you need a culture of innovation to do that.”

“Companies need to look at the big picture,” says McLeod, who also served in senior management positions at companies such as IBM Global Services and Canwest Global. “Some companies will think ‘that can’t happen to us,’ but if they truly look at what’s happening in their industry with technology, competitors and customers—they know they have to adapt to the changing world around them.” 

Manitoba as an innovator space
There are many young companies in the province that are very innovative—such as Bold Commerce and Callia Flowers. “Because they are relatively new and still have their startup DNA, they are still innovating their business model and can take advantage of opportunities and adjust when things change,” says McLeod.

Bold Commerce is an ecommerce company that focuses on the critical checkout part of the online buying experience.  Bold Commerce is a decade old and just hired an outside CEO on November 22. New CEO Peter Karpas has over three decades of experience in ecommerce, payments and FinTech at PayPal and Intuit. “It’s exciting to think about an experienced CEO like Karpas joining a team that is already innovative,” says McLeod.  

Winnipeg’s Callia Flowers was founded in 2016 by Catherine Metrycki. Callia Flowers delivers flowers throughout North America, but at its core it’s a technology and logistics company. “As Callia scales up, it still has the ability to innovate as it grows, adjusting as it learns,” says McLeod.

Manitoba also has amazing local companies who’ve been around for decades and who are also very innovative—like Pollard Banknote and Winpak. 

For example, Pollard Banknote started out as a printing company in 1907, and now is a world leader in lotteries and gaming through strategic acquisitions, innovative product design, digital transformation and international partnerships. “Pollard may not be as well-known locally, but they are a case study in how to transform a company in less than a decade and build a team that embraces innovation,” says McLeod.   

Winpak, like Pollard, has also innovated through acquisition and internal strategy. The packaging company continually innovates in its space, led by a CEO with a strong innovation background to help them stay ahead of the curve.  

“These well-established companies have figured out how to be ‘ambidextrous’ and successfully execute a current business model while developing new products and new business models.  They also often use a combination of strategic acquisition, partnering and innovation to stay ahead of their competitors,” says McLeod.

John Ferris, CEO of inVision Edge, agrees with McLeod about the innovation culture that is already formed in the province. 

“Manitoba’s business landscape is one that is rich and diverse,” says Ferris. “We have seen innovation on the product side, the internal process side in areas of customer service, and within the distribution channels. Our businesses compete nationally and internationally, and a culture of innovation enables the ability to move and change quickly to meet customer demands.” 

Now, we just need more.

Growing innovation
With key industries such as agriculture, mining, manufacturing, oil, mining and forestry, the need to innovate is strong in Manitoba, a province with a gross domestic product which increased nearly two per cent overall in 2021, from the first stages of the COVID pandemic in 2020.

However, it can be hard to make it happen. Often companies will create a team of innovators that work separately from the core business and the rest of the company focuses on the day-to-day business. This creates silos where the day-to-day work continues to dominate the work being done, and the innovators never get the time, space and attention to make the change needed to be successful. Leaders need to build innovation throughout the company and set up a strategy that has a focus on meaningful, company-wide change and growth.

“It comes down to a leadership team that believes that innovation-led growth is critical to the company’s success,” says McLeod. “This growth should be part of the company’s strategic plan and integrated into corporate systems and functions.” 

Teamwork makes the dream work
Like McLeod, Ferris feels that leadership is vitally important to fostering change and creating what is indeed a cohesive, forward-thinking group. Those things can ultimately lead to the first steps toward an innovation culture and eventual transformation.

“The leaders have to commit to support innovation,” says Ferris. “They have to truly believe in it. If they fully believe in the idea that innovation supports sustainable growth and impact, this is often the motivation which drives innovation within organizations.”

Most forward-thinking companies, like Google and Microsoft, have been building ventures that live and breathe innovation while recognizing that their people are just as important when it comes to bringing innovation to life.  

“Google is experiment-driven and let their employees take risks and try new things,” says McLeod. “They encourage their employees to think like entrepreneurs and give them some freedom to develop new ideas.” Companies that have a culture of innovation will develop, attract and retain employees with entrepreneurial skills and mindsets—called ‘intrapreneurs’ within an existing company—who thrive on innovation and leading change.

“If you study successful companies, they are always trying new things. They look at creating something that is different, that stands out from others. They put a lot of time and energy into it.”

Ferris also believes that the province of Manitoba’s biggest strength, is also a key to fostering the future of innovation.

“It all comes down to diversity,” Ferris says. “With both the cornerstones of diversity and collaboration, the biggest ideas can come together when diverse people can get together around a common mission.”

“Technology is a powerful disruptor—making it critical that companies have plans to investigate and exploit technology at the right time.” – Al McLeod

Take the risk
With innovation culture, there is also often a perceived inherent risk in trying to do things differently. However, without risk there is no reward. And with risk comes a workplace culture that is more forward-thinking, engaged, and you guessed it—innovative.

Trying new things, and accepting that not all ideas will succeed, is a risk that has to be taken in order for innovation to succeed. “The best way to learn is through experimentation,” says McLeod. “You can handle risk better when you plan well. It’s about managing the size of the failure, not avoiding failure all together. And it’s about learning the lessons from both success and failure and applying it in the future.”

Plus, taking managed risks to innovate pays. A study by Jaruzelski, Loehr, and Holman entitled The Global Innovation 1000, took a sample of 1,000 global innovating companies and looked at the alignment between company culture and their innovation strategies. Companies with high alignment (when compared to those with low alignment) saw their enterprise value grow 12 per cent faster over five years and their gross profit rise by seven per cent annually. 

Enter technology
Technology also plays a major role in innovation culture. As technology continues to disrupt just about everything in our work and our lives, it’s time to embrace it instead of fighting it.

“A CEO should understand how important the impact of technology is,” said McLeod.  “Technology is a powerful disruptor—making it critical that companies have plans to investigate and exploit technology at the right time.” Whether it’s technology to embed into internal workflows, introduce to your customers or add into the market, technology is just part of modern business and integral to innovation. 

Get started
Starting an innovation journey doesn’t have to be hard. A set list of tasks and how to achieve them plays a pivotal role in what could shape the future of an innovation culture and engaged workforce in Manitoba. Due to customers’ needs evolving (even more so due to the COVID-19 pandemic), companies must implement improvements, even by a gradual amount. This is where innovation can begin.

According to Ferris, this will create a ‘flywheel effect’ for the province.

“The more people that create and participate in innovation in their organizations, the better,” says Ferris. “If they share those ideas and collaborate, the residual effect will take place. The more people that learn the skill and the language of innovation, the more they can share it with others. Innovation, believe it or not, is a learned skill.”

That learned skill can influence the group that is encountering challenges. Innovation, along with diversity and cohesiveness, can be what brings Manitoba to the forefront of innovation culture.

Ready to go
If your organization is interested in building an innovation culture, the best time to start is now. McLeod recommends reading the McKinsey series Eight Essentials of Innovation. Launched in 2015, McKinsey analyzed innovative companies and discovered they had eight essential attributes that contributed to their success. In 2019 and 2022, McKinsey provided follow-up analysis on how the companies performed. “The latest report showed that the innovative companies were better able to rebound after the pandemic than others,” says McLeod. 

McLeod also says to find a trusted partner that has helped other companies improve or develop their innovation culture. “We’re lucky to have inVision Edge, a Manitoba company, who helps many companies develop their strategy and innovation program and system. They also have terrific tools and methodologies you can use within your innovation practice as well,” he says. 

Finally, if you have a strong “intrapreneurial” leader in your organization who you’d like to challenge, assign them to lead the effort to establish your plan to become an innovation leader. “But remember, make sure the entire leadership team is engaged in the process, as this is not a one-person job,” says McLeod.  “Rally the troops and break the silos. Innovation pays off in better engagement, better productivity and a better bottom line. It’s that simple.”

RRC Polytech Innovation
Are you a business owner or executive interested in building your organization? If that is the case, you should see what Red River College Polytechnic (RRC Polytech) has to offer. Innovation is closer than you may realize. 

RRC’s ACE Project Space could be your ticket to growing your business in ways you never thought possible. It is an interactive workspace where students, entrepreneurs, non-profit organizations, and corporations collaborate to bring unique ideas to life. 

In the words of Kirk Johnson, RRC’s Dean of Business Information Technology & Creative Arts, “It sounds too good to be true, but it is.” He has heard from applicants many times, “…you’re giving us access to student talent, faculty and staff are there supporting, I can have an office on location, and I get to keep the product and you want none of the intellectual property (IP)?” Naturally many people want to know where the catch is, but the point is that this program exists for strategic advantage within the Manitoba economy.

There is incredible value providing these services to Manitoba companies. Building innovation, efficiencies, technology, and effectiveness within companies has considerable spin off effects. Helping companies to grow and develop is an obvious plus, but other important benefits are RRC students finding valuable employment opportunities. “Seeding businesses that give back while giving students an amazing opportunity is our number one,” says Johnson.

The new project space, now called—Manitou a bi Bii daziigae (in Anishinaabemowin (Ojibwe)) is translated as “Where the Creator sits—Brings light.” The $100 million facility is 100,000 square feet of stunning architecture with a state-of-the-art technology and innovation hub. 

The space has already generated some very notable success stories. One such example is the tech company QDoc, an online medical platform. QDoc’s development and expansion was especially important during the time of Covid as it helped a struggling medical system as it combatted a global pandemic. “Innovation is about making incremental changes. Making something better and improving lives,” says Karen Kabel, chair of Applied Computer Education at RRC. 

Kabel is proud of the important work that is happening at the space. “People don’t come by innovation naturally. You’ve got to change the way you think. Try different things. Our students are given special training prior to being assigned to projects,” says Kabel. “They’re taught to think outside of the box.”

For more information on RRC’s ACE Project Space, visit rrc.ca/ace/

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