Think Something Daring Today

By John Latta

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Innovation may be the most powerful economic tool the bridge and highway industries have at their disposal right now.

Innovation is necessary in these recessionary times. When there is a sea change in our world – and this recession has created one – existing strategies and practices are inadequate.

But innovation is not something that can be handled by simply setting up a Chief Innovation Officer or an Innovation Task Force. It doesn’t happen because you throw people, time and money at it. Certainly some changes will come from such moves, but my guess is that they will often be somewhat predictable. Once brainstorming became a common word and practice in business, it became part of the company fabric and the people doing it often come up with little more than what is expected of them.

Daring to consider big-time innovations – and thinking and talking about it doesn’t contract you to do it – can help you identify new ways to work that would otherwise never appear on your radar. The innovating thinker has more ways to approach handling tough, changing times, than the thinker using a limited tool box of known quantities.

The ARTBA TransOvation conference last month ( was eye-opening. It helped me realize that if we don’t take the lead in changing our industry, we may end up following someone else’s lead that might take us somewhere we don’t want to go (because that someone else might be this economy or our elected representatives).

John Latta, Editor-in-Chief, jlatta@rrpub.comJohn Latta, Editor-in-Chief, [email protected]

I don’t have room here to convey even a handful of the ideas from the main speakers (who often get great ideas in the middle of nowhere doing things unrelated to their core business). But two stood out to me. I’ll paraphrase:

Failure is a key ingredient of innovation. Try to innovate and failure will usually come along for the ride. But it’s not the failure that matters, it’s the way you react to it. Criticize or penalize it, sit back and say, “I told you so,” and innovation is doomed. Easier said than done, I suspect.

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3M is one innovative company. Always has been. The company allows some employees to spend 15 percent of their time, and some money, on innovating for improvement. No paperwork required. I asked 3M’s Jerry Karel if the company has any “how to” literature that could help other companies. I knew right away I shouldn’t have. Jerry kind of shrugged and told me what I should have learned – it isn’t written in stone, it’s not structured, it’s neither predictable nor cookie-cutter reproducible. That’s somehow the point. That’s why it works.