Innovate to survive. That’s the key message I took away from this year’s Gartner Supply Chain Executive Conference. While that may not be exactly what Gartner had in mind—the official theme was The Bimodal Supply Chain: Tackling Today, Preparing for Tomorrow—it was a running dialogue across all the sessions I sat in on. Their idea of the bimodal supply chain in essence breaks things down into two ‘modes.’ Mode one focuses on tackling the issues your supply chain is facing today. Mode two is about innovation and growth, and the point was made in a number of sessions that you need to do both if you want to excel. If you’re someone who looks forward to change, who seeks it out because it’s inspiring and exciting, then mode two may seem obvious. You’ve likely already embraced this era where innovation across all facets of life has exploded and become ordinary. To me, innovation, aka what’s driving mode two of Gartner’s bimodal supply chain model, is already intertwined in our day-to-day lives. Hasn’t it always been to some capacity? Innovation is what has taken us from the birth of the internet to this growing concept of the Internet of Things and now beyond. We know innovation is important, it’s what moves us forward. History has proven that notion over, and over, and over again. Just look at the advancements in supply chain courtesy of innovation like MRP I, MRP II, and APS. Without them, we likely wouldn’t have been able to keep pace with the widespread globalization that has led to extensive supply chains and an explosion in product portfolios. I do agree strongly with Gartner that while we may all know how critical innovation is, we have to face the reality that actually achieving it is hard. Very hard. And in most cases true innovation isn’t just going to happen on its own. At least not in the type of siloed and conservative organizations that are quite prevalent across supply chains today. As keynote speaker David Willis, Chief of Research for Mobility and Digital Workplace, Gartner, said in his session Innovate Under Every Condition: The Bimodal Supply Chain, there is no formula for innovation. But you can make it easier for it to blossom by changing how you measure success, how you respond to failure, and how you view your most important asset—your workforce. Willis explained very articulately how people can be a real competitive advantage to your business, but in many cases it requires a shift of control and a new way forward. You can’t just focus on cost optimization if you want to get ahead in today’s changing business landscape. Navigating the often hostile organizational politics that surrounds these types of disruptive ideas is why fostering innovation is so darn challenging. There’s a fear of change, and even worse, a fear of failure. But the old adage about no risk, no reward, came from somewhere. For most businesses, unless you happen to work for a startup, the risks still need to be balanced with ensuring the success of current day-to-day operations. With growing economic pressures impacting virtually every vertical, the funds allocated to those possible failures is often the first on the chopping block. But Willis notes, “You can’t cut your way to growth.” He also talked about having a separate branch of the organization solely focused on innovation. That way, the day-to-day doesn’t interfere with new ideas, and vice versa. So how exactly do you accomplish that? Lock a group of employees in a room and tell them to innovate? Well, maybe. Chris Tyas, Senior Vice President Global Head of Supply Chain from Nestle was also one of the keynote speakers at the conference, and he talked about Supply Chain Innovation & Excellence: Engaging 36,000 Supply Chain Brains Across the World. He outlined Nestle’s approach to fostering innovation across their employee base. And while it doesn’t exactly involve locking employees in a room, it does give them a defined safe space in which to be creative and innovative. They’ve borrowed from social media trends and created an internal crowdsourcing app, where any employee can put forward an idea, and have it validated and built upon by their peers. They even film these new idea pitches in Shark Tank style, providing company-wide recognition. For them, it’s about taking advantage of the 36,000 minds that make up their supply chain workforce. They’ve realized their employees are often the best source of new ideas, and have provided an easy, safe way for them to bring them forward. I found it a really intriguing idea, and one that seems to have yielded positive results. So ask yourself this: If you know innovation is critical to your company’s success (and I think that’s been well established at this point), what are you doing to actually help foster it within your own four walls? It’s time to break out of business as usual. It’s time to take some risks. And it’s time to make sure you’re not just talking about innovation, but actually taking measures to help your employees make it happen!
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