Don't fear failure, CEOs tell business leaders

David Sali
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Complacency and fear of failure are stunting innovation and economic growth in Canada, a panel of Ottawa-based CEOs told a gathering of local business executives on Tuesday night.

Westmax Group president Steve West.

Former Nordion head Steve West drew on his experience of 11 years living and working in Asia, where he said entrepreneurs are generally more willing to challenge the status quo and are hungrier for success than their Canadian counterparts.

“I think we’re very complacent in Canada,” said Mr. West, who is now the president of Westmax Group, a consulting company. “Maybe that’s because, you know, things aren’t so bad. We don’t have that crisis that really motivates us to do things that are out of the box.”

The former CEO of Nordion said he used to lie awake at night struggling to figure out new ways to innovate when he led the heavily regulated medical isotope company.

One day, he said, a group of engineers at Nordion suggested the firm branch out into medical marijuana. While the idea ultimately didn’t gain any traction, “what it said to me was at least a group of people were thinking outside the box,” Mr. West told the crowd at the Mill Street Brew Pub. “The fact that they had enough courage to come to me was good.”

He was one of four CEOs speaking at the panel discussion on strategies for innovation hosted by management consulting firm Stratford Managers as part of its Executive Perspectives series.

Stratford CEO Jim Roche also looked outside Canada’s borders to illustrate this country’s need to cultivate a more innovative business spirit. He said tech entrepreneurs here are sometimes too quick to give up on ideas that don’t pay instant dividends.

“We as a culture, as Canadians and certainly in Ottawa, we tend not to celebrate failure,” he said. “If somebody starts something and fails, that’s usually a bad sign. Whereas in Silicon Valley … if you try something and fail, that means you’ve learned something. I think there’s a lot to be said for embracing failure.”

While Ward Griffin, the head of printing company Lowe-Martin Group, said excessive government red tape is often cited as a major obstacle to innovation, another panelist, LiveQoS CEO Martin Horne, said it’s up to entrepreneurs to work through those barriers.

“I think if you’re really gonna do it, you’ve just got to do it,” he said.

It’s important for leaders of innovative firms to clearly communicate their vision to employees so everyone understands the company’s goals and buys in, the panelists said.

Hiring good staff to execute a plan for innovation is also key, Mr. Griffin added.

“I think you’ve got to find the right people that enjoy that kind of pace, that kind of change,” he said.

Innovative thinking applies not just to technology, but also to business and marketing models, Mr. Roche said.

He said that during his time as president and CEO of Tundra Semiconductor, the company once spent millions of dollars developing a cutting-edge product, only to be beaten to market by multinational competitor IBM. Mr. Roche made the difficult decision to scrap Tundra’s own product, which was still in development, but found a creative approach to turn that setback into a major opportunity.

After convincing IBM that its product didn’t really fit in with Big Blue’s overall business plan, Tundra bought it, a move that ended up paying off.

“We turned around and sold the crap out of this product and made a ton of money out of it,” Mr. Roche said. “The thing about innovation is, it doesn’t just apply to technology.”









Organizations: Westmax Group, Mill Street Brew Pub, Big Blue Lowe-Martin Group Tundra Semiconductor

Geographic location: Canada, Asia, Ottawa Silicon Valley

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