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Innovation and economics: Converters glimpse the future

March 14, 2011

TLMI converter members, meeting in Florida, learn ways to foster innovation, as well as some frank talk about the economic future.

The Future Is Upon Us. That is the theme, inspiring or foreboding, of the 2011 TLMI Converter Meeting, taking place this week at the Four Seasons Resort in Palm Beach, FL, USA. About 140 converter members and guests of the Tag & Label Manufacturers Institute are attending, learning about various aspects of their shared future and, as the subtitle indicates, Adapting to a Brave New World.

Starting the event Monday morning was Robert Tucker, president of The Innovation Resource, who focused on innovations and how they are born inside the minds of individuals and within the culture of the company.

If the leader of your organization has his mind made up about innovation and is resistant – or indifferent – to change, then your organization will reflect that attitude, Tucker said. That's why it's necessary to embrace the opportunity mindset, embody it for the good of your organization, he added.

Ideas for growth can come from fortuitous accidents, Tucker noted, citing such examples as the discovery of the microwave oven and NutraSweet as unplanned, happy discoveries in the course of unrelated research. But companies cannot rely on eureka moments. Instead, they can:

- Think of innovation as a systematic approach
- Implement idea management systems
- Collaborate with customers and partners – well beyond the purchasing person
- Create metrics and rewards for employees to innovate
- Involve everyone in your enterprise – don't keep everything a secret!

Tucker said that the idea and opportunity mindset understands that there is a better way to achieve a goal. "Be an assumption assaulter," he declared. "Everything in your company has come about from someone assaulting someone's way of doing something."

There are three types of assumptions ready to be assaulted: organizational, personal and industry. One example: "I hope you can help our organization, but 'a spring is a spring is a spring'." Don't assume that a spring is a spring is a spring, said Tucker. Push back with new ideas and you will laugh all the way to the bank."

As ammunition, Tucker proposed five ways to assault assumptions:

- Become aware (as a leader) of your own assumptions
- Invite yourself to think bigger
- Ask for a third option – not just one and two
- Conduct thinking exercises with your team – appoint someone to be in charge of this initiative
- Ask a different question

"Fortify your idea factory," Tucker urged. "Ideas are the key asset of your organization. How are you handling this? How are you handling that? Network with your people. Ask questions of your peers." Some tips:

- Identify what gets your juices flowing
- Download your ideas – write down an idea, or it will get lost and you will forget it, or forget to implement it
- Schedule time to step away and have a day for yourself. Don't go to meetings, don't do technology, don't make phone calls. Do something you feel like doing. You will have time to think and ideas will naturally come to you
- Appoint an innovation catalyst – not a job to think of the innovations, but to organize them and get the ball rolling

Tucker's final point was to cultivate a culture. "If you are not cultivating a culture and moving forward," he said, "you are not even staying the same. You are moving backward."

A culture comprises the values, the unspoken rules and subtle cues that guide people's behavior and tells them how to act in your particular environment, he observed. "Employees do not listen to what you say, they watch what you do. To innovate, you've got to be willing to accept failure – make light of it, discuss it, bring it out into the open. Don't punish mistakes; reward ideas.

"Everyone has ideas in the shower," said Tucker. "Get out of the shower, write it down and implement your innovation."

Economic outlook
The inspiration of innovation was followed by a hard look at some numbers, and some economic forecasting by Alan Beaulieu, a senior analyst, economist and principal at the Institute for Trends Research.

Beaulieu's forecast for industrial production through the next several years is as follows:

2011 – Increasing productivity beginning of year and then slowing
2012 – Flat
2013 – Speculation of minor recession
2015, 2016, 2017 – Good years
2018, 2019 – Recession years

If anyone is looking for the right time to sell a business, he said, the best time in the near future appears to be 2017 or 2018.

"Unemployment is currently 8.9 percent," Beaulieu told TLMI converter members. "That number means nothing for right now – it is a predictor of the future. Each month watch private sector employment: If it is going up 200,000-plus jobs a month, that's a good beginning to a good recovery. We need to create more than 231,000 jobs a month for 10 years to get back to where we were before this recession started. We need unemployment at full employment, which means 5.5 percent or lower."

Inflation, said Beaulieu, is a systemic issue that will be with us for a while. "When rates of change move up, there is an acceleration of money coming into the economy; consumers have more money. This money being pushed in brings inflation with it."

Food prices around the world are up 29 percent, he said, but they have risen only 1.8 percent in the United States. "This is a huge indicator of rising inflation. Is the Fed chief knowing and willingly lowering the value of the dollar to make us competitive around the world? Perhaps yes. This is a moral hazard. We tell other countries not to do this: 'Make tough decisions!' we tell them. 'Do the right thing to save your country!'

"We are doing this now! This is one reason other countries are so upset with us."

Beaulieu spoke of the need to educate workers. "There are 1,500 manufacturing facilities in the Rochester, NY, area. They are crying out for qualified people, but they cannot get qualified people to move to Rochester." By extending unemployment benefits, he added, the country is telling people that it's OK not to move to where the jobs are.

Interest rates are going to go up, he said, but the Fed is keeping them artificially down. "If interest is going up – which it is – we need to rethink the way we run our businesses. When inflation comes, it will make day-to-day life harder on the people who work for you. In 2012, when inflation goes to 4-5 percent, we will have to give out raises to help our employees. This will demand that you do something different to come up with this money. We will need to raise our prices.

Some advice from the economist: Spend money now before inflation arrives – to help drive the efficiency you will need in the future. "Buy real estate and rent it out: It will benefit you before inflation comes. We are now experiencing the lowest prices of our lifetimes."

Beaulieu forecast that the housing market will slowly rise a few points here and there, but not quickly. "The generation behind us does not want to own homes. They think it is a bad investment – they just watched it drop 30 percent. They do not have roots the way their parents do. They switch jobs every two to four years and do not want to have to see a house. They feel that they will need to buy a house when they set down 'roots' – that is, when they have children. This fuels the growth and good years projected for 2015-2017. This is another reason why investing in real estate now and renting it out will benefit us."