Former Research In Motion executive Ray DePaul on why innovation is crucial to long-term success
A cautionary tale of hubris and the stages of failure
by Alberta Venture Staff
Ray DePaul is the director of Mount Royal University’s new Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, a centre that exposes students from every academic discipline to entrepreneurial ideas through experiential learning. He comes to the job having spent five years as the product manager at Research In Motion when it was in its heyday. At RIM, he was responsible for developing business plans, helping define new products and bringing the BlackBerry to market. He then founded a software development company, RapidMind, which he eventually sold to Intel. In addition to his work as director of the institute, DePaul is teaching a course that exposes students to the creative aspects of entrepreneurialism.
Photograph Bryce Meyer
What is the importance of innovation to a business?
When people think of innovation they often think of technology, but every company needs innovation. Whether that’s innovating on processes or on product and service ideas, if you’re not moving forward, someone else is coming along.
As an economy, this is how we continuously reinvent ourselves. This is how new opportunities are created. If you look at Ontario, they’re struggling now because they kept betting so heavily on the manufacturing sector, automotive specifically. Fortunately they have some innovation going on in high-tech in areas like Waterloo and Toronto.
We in Alberta seem to have a pretty good runway, but even within our major sectors we have to continue to innovate and be competitive globally or we won’t continue to be leaders in those sectors.
How do you build a culture of innovation in a business?
There are a bunch of things you have to do to allow for innovation. One of the big ones is allowing risk-taking. Don’t be afraid to fail. If your employees are running scared that if an idea they suggest ultimately fails, that it’s going to hinder their career, they quickly learn not to suggest ideas. It starts there, with a culture of willingness to take risks and to accept failure.
But be aware that not many good ideas turn out to be good businesses. The message is you have to try a lot of them.
You’re teaching young minds how to be innovative. Can you teach an old dog?
Even the minds entering university have sometimes had the creativity beaten out of them, and there’s absolutely a way to teach it. I don’t think it’s age specific. It’s the mindset you bring into it.
For instance, there are ways to conduct brainstorming sessions and to think innovatively. Everyone knows that in a brainstorming session you don’t judge. It isn’t a time to show off your ability to knock things down because everybody can find warts on an idea.
Instead, it’s a time to try and build on what other people are saying. You should start by asking what was right about the idea. It brings a new feeling into the room if you say, “I really like the market they’re in,” or something like that. All of a sudden, people are asking what they can tweak as opposed to throwing the idea out and going back to the drawing board.
And recognize that innovation is a team sport. Very rarely does this happen in a room by yourself. It’s almost always in interactions with others. They bring a perspective. Then you might go back to your room and suddenly have the eureka moment, but it’s based on that communication you just had with someone.
It’s really interesting to watch a team of four or five students from different faculties. That is far more dynamic than five business students or five computer science students, and I think that’s more reflective of the real world, too. For instance it’s great to have an artist on your team. They open up so many ideas.
You say that RIM built a company around an innovative product but that it was not an innovative company. What did you mean by that? Where did RIM fall down?
It was a failure to innovate over a few years that got them into this position. Innovation has to be built into the culture of an organization and it has to happen constantly. You don’t task-force innovation. It has to be part of what you do.
RIM was an almost cult-like environment. In the early days when I was there, everybody believed they were changing the world – and in a way, they were. We introduced an entirely new way to communicate, but it was always around the product. BlackBerry was what we did. A lot of the great companies out there have figured out that it has to be about the organization. You look at the Googles of the world. People inside Google don’t all want to work on the search engine, which generates most of the revenue. They know that Google is an innovative company and that it’s constantly killing off products and introducing better and better things.
In Jim Collins’s book How the Mighty Fall he talks about the stages of failure, and I think RIM has gone through a few of those stages: hubris because of their success, jumping into markets they maybe shouldn’t have such as the Playbook and denying that things are going bad. But I don’t see them doing the classic grabbing at straws, such as hiring a CEO who’s a charismatic evangelist, which makes everyone feel good for a few months until you realize nothing has changed. If they can figure out how to innovate and how to figure out this market, they have a shot at being the next rising star in mobile, again.
Any first impressions of Alberta’s culture of innovation?
I’m absolutely thrilled. I didn’t know what to expect. I came from Waterloo, which is a reasonably small area so it’s easy to gather a high-tech community. But I’ve worked in Toronto as well, which is very large and doesn’t feel like it has the cohesion. I’m finding Calgary has the critical mass and the cohesion. People are very helpful. It’s a wonderful indication that the people who live here want the next generation to have the same opportunities, if not better opportunities than they had. That’s the right culture to build on innovation and the entrepreneurial spirit.