Innovation's top banana isn't monkeying around

July 24, 2006

BY MICHAEL KRAUSS

Tom Kuczmarski is Chicago's top banana when it comes to innovation. In fact, Kuczmarski is bananas about Chicago and our potential to be a global capital of innovation.

The founder of innovation consultancy Kuczmarski & Associates uses the yellow fruit to make his point that innovation is about thinking differently about common problems. At a recent seminar, Kuczmarski plunged into the audience and held three bananas aloft asking "Who's willing to peal a banana?"

Kuczmarski urged the audience to take a risk. Three brave volunteers pealed the bananas from the stem down. Then came the learning point about innovation.

"If you go to the zoo, the chimpanzees peal a banana from what we would say is the bottom," says Kuczmarski. Kuczmarski's not sure why. He thinks it's because bananas are easier to hold that way, and the top comes out clean. Try it. The chimps are right.

He hasn't asked the chimps, but his point is clear: "If you've pealed a banana one way your whole life, it's time to change your perspective, and start to do things differently," Kuczmarski says.

He isn't simply talking about bananas. He's talking about how Chicago thinks, and he wants to change it. Kuczmarski wants the city of Big Shoulders to be a showplace of innovation. Along with the Sun-Times, he co-founded the Chicago Innovation Awards four years ago to put a spotlight on Chicago's innovation leaders and to help spur Chicago ahead of traditional innovation mecca's like Silicon Valley.

The Chicago Innovation Awards annually recognize 10 local companies or organizations that have produced market-changing innovations. Past winners include Motorola's RAZR and Luminar Technologies' TurboTap, an engineering marvel that fills beer glasses in record time.

Nomination forms for the fifth annual judging can be found at www.chicagoinnovationawards.com. The nominations deadline is July 31.

Kuczmarski says innovation pays dividends. If you invested in a mutual fund of the publicly held Chicago Innovation Award winners, you would have reaped a return of nearly 60 percent, well above the 19 percent return for the Dow Jones industrial average during the same period.

Kuczmarski believes innovation requires risk-taking. It's about leadership, and a willingness to fail. It's about listening to customers and identifying their needs. He says companies must establish a process making innovation orderly while keeping thinking unconstrained.

Kuczmarski says it all when he peals a banana. Innovation is about thinking differently. Try pealing that banana upside down. We need more of that in Chicago. I'm glad the innovation top banana is on duty in the Windy City.

DeVry-CPS partnership

DeVry Inc. CEO Daniel Hamburger is continuing his pilot Advantage Academy program offering Chicago public high school students the chance to graduate with both a high school diploma and a college associate degree at no cost to the student.

Says Hamburger, "We're working to expand the model Chicago program into other markets."

Washington High grad Isaac Tostado, 18, is one reason Hamburger's pleased.

"I've always been fascinated by computers," says Tostado, who received an associate's degree from DeVry while earning his high school diploma by attending school year-round. Tostado was motivated. "I knew tech jobs were going to pay well," he says.

The program isn't easy, and not everyone finished. Last autumn, 116 students enrolled in the Advantage Academy, but only 94 earned both a high school diploma and an associate's degree in network administration.

But 88 of those 94 are now planning to enter college in the fall to earn their bachelor's degree.

Ad:tech returns

Ad:tech, the tech marketing trade show, returns to Chicago today and tomorrow at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel and Towers.

Fay Ferguson, CEO of Chicago's Burrell Communications, opens the show focusing on multicultural online marketing. Also on tap today, AvenueA/Razorfish central region president David Friedman hosts a panel on how blogs and digital video recorders disrupt the relationship between companies and their customers. More than 3,000 tech marketers are expected at the conference.

Michael Krauss is a Chicago area tech writer and consultant.

 

 

 ©2006 Marion Consulting Partners