Forget about the big-name—Hewlett Packard; DuPont; GE; Otis Elevator; IBM—industry leaders touted as innovative and tough. Instead, walk over to the window; look down the street to Trend Hunter, and Toronto Central CCA (Community Care Access) Centre; then look up …way up to the friendly giant of Ontario skiing – Blue Mountain Resorts to see just three of the thousands of ‘local’ concerns swimming with innovation. In spite of their divergences, each of the three share one over-riding value: they are run by observant ‘customer-product/experience’ thinkers: people who actually welcome conflicts between: 1) excellent ideas; 2) differences in values; 3) products or services not meeting the marketplace.

The embodiment of an excellent idea that started with a fight is Jeremy Gutsche’s 6-year-old company Trend Hunter, which uses the social network to ensure marketers catch trends before they crest. Gutsche says his initial duke-out, which was an internal battle between security and risk, proved the most difficult one. The conflict was to make the decision to leave his highly-paid Director-level bank job to pursue his idea, or leave the idea and continue to rapidly rise through the corporate ranks. His final decision was ‘risk’…tempered by the caveat to stay with the job and work long nights on Trend Hunter. Honouring his bank job while dealing with massive amounts of ‘home’ work became a daily, 20-hour, ‘can I do this’ struggle, one that was only resolved when Trend Hunter’s numbers reached the tipping point.

His last major battle was also an internal one. Knowing the high failure rates of start-ups backed by venture capital funds, he determined the failures were instigated by the wherewithal to throw money at problems rather than finding inventive ways to solve them. As a result, Jeremy made the unusual decision to bootstrap Trend Hunter with his own money, even though it would provide slower growth rates. Unable to fix their challenges with money, he and his small go-getting team openly batted ideas around and treated conflicts as a creative fount from which to respond to customers’ needs and better their experience. Nowadays, in spite of having more than enough money to throw at problems, it is still their preferred path to profit.
Innovative conflict is also valued at the Toronto Central CCA Centre these days. And the conflict that started it all came from the core of the culture—talking, not walking CCA values. With client complaints on the rise and ever-increasing pressures on front-line care givers, Stacy Daub, CEO, and her strong team used ‘take your head out of the sand’ courage, moved out of their comfort zones, jumped into the fray, and began to question and listen intently to both clients and those caring for them—all of which gave them a thoroughly rounded and intimate knowledge of the endemic care issues. Then, rather than applying some banal fix, they committed to and embroiled themselves in the massive task of changing not only problem behaviours, but the whole underlying culture.

When declared one of Greater Toronto’s 2011Top Employers by the Globe & Mail, Ms Daub responded by saying: “We will continue building and nurturing our culture of continuous quality improvement through Safety (don’t hurt me), Science (heal me) and Service (be nice to me), which is the foundation of our new Strategic Plan 2011 – 2014, and at the core of our organization.” Don’t hurt me; heal me; be nice to me—the unflinching basis of a strategic plan? A plan that by the end of 2011 was already resolving long-standing issues and reaping client accolades plus establishing partnerships with health care providers? Well, try to imagine (at the risk of the back of your head blowing off), a private-sector executive team using unswerving honesty and deeply-held values when defining strategies: i.e., ‘Guide rather than gouge. Seek loyalty not leverage. Do away with low-minded contracts that trap customers for years in—’ whoa! …did you hear that explosion?

Perhaps a better way to blow your mind is to head north to Blue Mountain Resorts. Based on the inclusionary nature of its founder, Jozo Weider (who understood the ‘got your back’ strength provided when friends and families work together), and the open attitude of Gordon Channing, his son-in-law and former CEO (whose actions showed meritorious commitment to both townie and tourist), the sweet suite team regularly meet with employees—from busboys on up—to hear customer ‘wants’, and products or services causing dissatisfaction and conflict. From left-over food on a plate to grumbles about the facilities; the critical feedback is posted internally, and immediately put on the Executive Agenda where it will stay until they and their ‘dog with a bone’ management teams find ideas and solutions that move the business forward.

So that’s why those companies down the street slug their conflicts out. And that’s why, from highest to lowest rung, the whole ladder of people working there are encouraged to be observant  “is the product needed/wanted” and “does/will the customer have a good experience when they deal with us” thinkers. Indeed, the price of admission in creating similar thinkers in other companies is simple: an Executive or CEO trumpeting the necessity of them, and leaders throughout the organization who have learned how to accept, explore, and move conflict into innovation. That, plus a little soon-to-melt-away awkwardness as the highest rungs, and the people directly dealing with the customer engage. But only if both sides are willing to forget about rungs and rank and be themselves; only if front-line people are honest and those questioning and listening are receptive and ready to take a good hard look at what their customers are saying; only if those senior people act on the information, handle resulting disagreements, and execute whatever changes are required; and only if they are anticipating and making preparations for through-the-roof customer satisfaction levels and profits.

Written by the Common Outlook Team

(Oh, and about that small fraction of consumers who actually complain? The three entities above recognize that a mere 5% of customer/client product gripes and service complaints are made at the Head Office level. Another 45% are voiced in stores, branches, or out in the field, few of which are relayed up the line. And though vociferously shared with potential clients and customers in the guise of friends, family, and colleagues, 50% remain unsaid. Indeed, ripe material for improvement!)

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