I bet you wish you had a nickel for every time you've heard a presentation on innovation. I do. Throw in five cents more for speeches on unlocking the creativity of your company-department-association-team and I'd be rolling nickels for the rest of my days.

Organizations of all kinds love to talk about innovation, perhaps because it is so much easier to have a good chat on the subject than it is to actually do it. There is another reason why it is so popular a topic on the lecture circuit, however: The ability to innovate is considered to be essential to long-term business success. When you're talking innovation today, you're talking about fortunes, not nickels.

In August, Cisco published its 2005 Innovation Study, a poll of 635 senior business and IT decision makers on the subject of organizational competitiveness (available at www.cisco.com). When participants were asked what factors would have the biggest impact on competitiveness, innovation was the overwhelming choice. Fifty-three percent cited innovation as the primary driver of competitiveness — the path to increased revenues, greater market share, improved customer relationships and lower production costs. No wonder companies are so interested in picking up the innovation pace.

ArvinMeritor, Inc. (www.arvinmeritor.com), for example, has developed a process that is increasing the output of new ideas for them, innovation workshops. “We have been doing innovation workshops since 1998 and we do about ten per year now,” says Philip C. Kittredge, chief engineer for the company. “We learned the process from Lanny Vincent and Associates, Ltd. (www.innovationsthatwork.com). After utilizing his services regularly for several years, he agreed to share the process with us so that we could run sessions with our own trained facilitators. Our chief intellectual property counsel, M. Lee Murrah, first introduced Mr. Vincent to our Automotive Group, and his approach to innovation has changed the way we work”.

One way in which ArvinMeritor measures innovation success is in terms of the number of new ideas submitted for review and possible patenting. According to Kittredge, the workshops have very dramatically increased that figure since they began. Prior to 1998, the number of idea disclosures submitted always stayed below 100. Following the start of the workshops, the number jumped to 350, then to nearly 800 in 1999 and to more than 900 in 2000. “Since 2000, the number of disclosures has leveled off at about 500 per year,” he notes.

Several factors make these cross-functional workshops so productive, according to Kittredge. “First of all, we try to clearly identify our objective,” he says. “We also use trained facilitators and include non-traditional participants in the group. Over the years we've discovered that, as people participate in this process, they tend to become more creative, more open to new possibilities and receptive to new ideas.”

“Rarely is an engineer given a blank sheet of paper,” says Garrick Hu, vp-advanced engineering at ArvinMeritor. “Usually, there are lots of constraints — time, cost, materials, methods. In these workshops, we have a problem statement, but no constraints on the solution.”

The idea of innovation as a group activity runs counter to commonly held notions about the value of committees (almost nil) and to their ability to churn out results in a short time (not likely). This makes ArvinMeritor's success all the more intriguing and their workshop process, well, all the more innovative.