The Commodity Trap
The corner office is a terrible place from which to innovate!
By Anne Orban, MFA, MEd, NPDP
Date Published: 5/1/2017

Leadership that recognizes innovation is the responsibility of everyone that wants innovation to succeed needs to have strategy, processes, tools and techniques in place for that to happen, and must regularly review their effectiveness. 

Innovation for growth requires leadership to invest with courage in proven processes and by placing trust in employees to respond meaningfully to opportunities for innovation. If you are tempted to make innovation an appendage or to graft it from outside then consider Tom Fehsenfeld’s experience. 

“It’s the job of senior managers,” says Tom Fehsenfeld, president of Crystal Flash Energy, a fuel distribution company in Michigan, “to raise awareness of the need for change [innovation] and create a desire for change, but then you must make everyone in the company a participant, not a spectator.” When Tom was challenged to grow and diversify the business so as not to be caught in the commodity service trap, he hired from outside the company. “Everyone in the core business was busy keeping that going, so I hired individuals new to the company into a department of five people to focus on the future. They were charged to find compatible but different kinds of products and services to grow our business. This small team was like an anti-body. What we got was three years of misunderstandings—bad feelings and seriously disgruntled employees in our core business. What I finally figured out was that we needed buy-in from our employees to reinvent the future of the company. There are no short-cuts.”


If there are no short-cuts, what should leadership do? Do what Tom Fehsenfeld finally figured out—ask your employees to actively participate in reinventing the future for the company; after all they are as interested as leadership in the long-term success of the company. 

A useful place to start engaging employees is this informal survey designed for enterprises with little experience of formal innovation processes. In small group meetings, ask participants to review the survey questions and record their rating. Then lead a discussion of what is in place and what is not in place to support innovation. The outcome must be an understanding of the innovation framework and a draft plan-of-action from each small group discussion. Cumulatively, leadership will have employee input and therefore shared ownership and investment for the way forward. Leadership is reminded not to squander this important opportunity for innovation progress by failing to implement next steps. 

Perhaps you are not convinced that growth and innovation can be accomplished by your employees. Then reflect on what a difference caring and active engagement makes in anything you do. People who are actively engaged in any problem-solving activity whether at work or in their volunteer and family lives, give more and get more in return because of the intrinsic rewards that come from making meaningful contributions. The act of caring enough and being engaged enough and tenacious enough to try to make a difference provides those intrinsic rewards. Harnessing that power for innovation starts with something as simple as asking for input to stimulate engagement. Asking for input means really listening to discussions about what is working, what is not working and opportunities for improvement. 

Like all journeys into the unchartered, you have to make sure that you have what is needed to support you on the way to successful results. For successful innovation what is needed is to create a safe space for interactions, time for interactions, intrinsic motivation and a framework for innovation practice.

Creating a safe space means emphasizing respect and valuing differences of opinion and perspective. It can start with emphasizing your company’s values and then acknowledging and managing corporate and individual bias and assumptions. This is so important, because what often gets in the way of innovation are the unwritten rules of the game comprising of your company’s sacred cows and 800 lb. gorillas. These need to be identified and managed so as not to be barriers for progress. 

Making time in this context means placing value on reflection and thinking. The alternative is busy-itis—a state in which people look busy because being seen to be busy is expected. Mostly, the appearance of busy-ness does not result in meaningful contributions and ultimately fails to reward the company with value from employees and employees with job satisfaction. 

Intrinsic motivation comes from inclusion that harnesses the desire to make meaningful contributions. Intrinsic rewards are what all the employee satisfaction surveys indicate as most important. It is what gets employees up in the morning and energized for solving tough problems on the road to innovation success. 

The framework for innovation contains the processes, procedures, tools and techniques for implementing and managing innovation. Depending on the company, these foundational basics will be scaled with a range of processes and procedures. The informal survey above reflects the basics for a framework for innovation. 

As leaders for growth from innovation you are responsible for providing the framework for innovation that will ensure your organization’s success. Why continue practices that don’t work well, why fail to adopt necessary foundational processes and procedures for innovation? 

And there’s plenty of help out there. For example, the Product Development and Management Association (PDMA) is the premier resource for those starting off on growth from innovation. The PDMA offers a network of professionals, training, certification, publications and recommended reading lists. 


Anne Orban, MFA, MEd, NPDP, ( is director of discovery & innovation for Innovation Focus Inc.     


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