Ideas and information have become a second form of currency, which means businesses that continue to innovate – disrupting their industries and often themselves – hold the key to success.

OMX Founder and CEO Nicole Verkindt knows this firsthand. Named “Canada’s Woman Entrepreneur of the Year” by StartUp Canada in 2017, she’s an expert on innovation, technology, entrepreneurial and disruptive thinking and diversity in leadership. As a keynote speaker at Mitel Innovation Day 2019, she described her own experiences growing up as a disruptor and how businesses can build a culture that fosters innovation.

With over a decade of experience, Nicole understands that “the constant gnaw of frustration” about a problem often leads to the best ideas. In our interview, she explains how innovation is often sparked by failure, old ideas made new and a diversity of experiences.

Innovation is at risk of becoming just a buzzword. In your experience, what does innovation truly look like in today’s business world?

To me, innovation is really a frame of mind, rooted in the culture of an organization. I don’t think it’s possible to say, “Today, we are going to take time to be innovative.” It has to be something people are doing day in and day out almost naturally, driven by an infectious culture. In my view, leaders need to set up the parameters and the environment for it to happen, then just bring on the right people and encourage entrepreneurial, innovative thinking.

You’ve said innovation often comes from small improvements or refreshing old ideas. Can you elaborate on that?

I see a false perception that there is one silver bullet, that someone gets “hit by lightning” while taking a shower or driving in a car and that is how they come up with their idea. I often hear young people in particular say they would be entrepreneurs if only they had an idea. What I’ve learned is that you have to be on the ice to score.

And, if you are deep into working in a niche area and have the established culture of always looking for better ways to do things and accepting new and diverse ideas, you’ll keep improving and naturally iterate to your bigger idea. I don’t think real innovation comes from one idea in an ivory tower, a garage or a basement; they come from being in the trenches, day in and day out—constantly improving a way of doing something.

You’ve said innovation often stems from the “constant gnaw of frustration.” How do you recommend businesses identify what’s gnawing at their employees and leverage that information?

It’s so important that businesses create an environment that allows employees to try new things, solve their gnawing frustrations with their teams and then incentivize and motivate them to see those concepts through, including accepting if they fail. I’ve heard of so many people who come up with a business solution within a large organization and they have to leave to pursue it. I just think that is so sad and unnecessary.

Businesses are really just groups of people. It is leadership’s job to set the tone through constant conversations with team members, asking them what they think and embracing their desires to improve the business.

Why is industry expertise combined with existing technology expertise such a potent combination?

Because it is so hard for the average person to truly know what is neededwithin narrow niches. I personally have no idea what a pharmacist needs. That’s why my first angel investment was to a pharmacist who had worked in that job for years, and he wanted to apply best practices from the tech sector to take on the specific problems of those domains.

“Disruption” can have a negative connotation. Why is being an industry disruptor something to strive for?

It’s true. Often people get rewarded for towing the line, for being a hard team worker and not ruffling feathers. Right from the earliest days in school, you get rewarded for your academic marks, which are mostly based on how long you can sit still in a chair and do your homework.

There is value in this, but there is also a huge risk in having teams of people with blinders on just doing what they are told. If companies do not constantly disrupt themselves, improve and innovate, they will not survive. Customers are in charge, and if there is a better way of consuming something, they will—and it won’t take long.

How does not embracing innovation hold businesses back?

In today’s world, with digitization accelerating the way it is, not embracing innovation is quite literally the fastest way to go out of business. I am confident it will be that dramatic. The next waves of “Blockbusters” are right around the corner. The problem is, from the inside, it never seems as urgent as that, so people are caught off guard. But absolutely, it will do much more than just hold businesses back.

What is 2-D diversity in your own words and why should businesses aim for it?

I always knew about the “first D” in diversity. That encompasses everything you are born with: age, race, sexual orientation and so on. The “second D” is the really interesting one because it’s related to people’s experiences.

I remember being criticized in university for trying so many new things and spending summers travelling. I was not on the path to be an accountant or investment banker, that’s for sure. When I was graduating from my fancy business program without a job, my professor quipped that I should apply for a position at the “Lonely Planet.” It turns out, the data shows that teams that embrace members with extremely diverse life experiences grow their businesses more, especially in new markets.

How do things like grit, boredom, and failure tie into innovation?

It’s funny how, when you’re being really innovative, the day to day is actually a little boring. It takes tens of thousands of hours of trying things, failing, changing what you are trying, talking to others about these issues, talking to customers and repeating the process over and over again. Innovation is not one glamorous moment; it a long, sort of boring process! (Sorry to burst your bubble.)

Success in business is virtually impossible without continuous innovation. Build a culture that fosters it, don’t shy away from failure and nurture employee diversity to ensure your business thrives for years to come.

For a recap of this year’s Innovation Day, see the video below.


Cover image of Mitel’s Digital Transformation for Dummies asset

Digital transformation has become a top initiative for business and IT leaders. In today’s business world, sustainable market leadership is no longer based solely on which company has the best products or even the best people. Instead, organizations that are agile and can quickly adapt to rapidly evolving market trends will become market leaders.

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