Innovate or fade away

Debates have raged for millennia about the importance and validity of new ideas, and over the centuries, change has been received with mixed reactions.

Some accepted innovation with open arms, while others viewed it with suspicion and fear. A few even labeled innovative thinking — such as Nicolaus Copernicus’ theory that the sun, not the Earth, was the center of the solar system — as heresy.

Today, that type of thinking isn’t so controversial that you have to keep your findings unpublished until the time of your death, but unearthing organizations that work out on the bleeding edge by constantly developing new processes, products and management styles is still a challenge.

Those daring few that trust their instincts often lead the way in their industries and change the way we think, not only about business, but also about leadership and employee relations.

Take, for example, Bruce Harris, CEO of Conferon.

Harris, who was honored two years ago as a Master Innovator at the Innovation in Business Conference, has made a career of challenging the meeting planning industry at every level. He’s been so successful in forcing his peers to look differently at how they’ve always done things that many of Conferon’s innovations have become industry standards.

“If you don’t embrace change, then you become insignificant in your industry,” says Harris, who has used constant innovation to become the single largest customer for meetings for every major hotel chain, booking a whopping 4 million guest rooms a year.

One innovation underway at Conferon is Project Attrition, designed to address problems hotels have had with the surge in online discount room bookings. Because meetings are booked far in advance, online bargain-seekers often find lower last-minute rates than the ones they’re offered as conference attendees. Meeting planners are then stuck with guaranteed rooms to pay for — rooms that are unfilled — costing hundreds of thousands of dollars.

While details of the plan haven’t been released, Harris says the results will change the model of how meetings are booked.

This entire philosophy can be boiled down to one key element.

“Innovation is about change,” Harris says. “And that means challenging the accepted norm.”

So as you read through the stories of the 2003 Innovation in Business Conference honorees and Kim Palmer’s feature on idea gurus John Nottingham and John Spirk, think about your own company and drop me a line with the answer to this one burning question: “What innovation are you working on?”