Innovation – with or without us

By Maurie Cashman | Guest Column

Innovation happens every day in companies and classrooms, on farms and athletic fields throughout the Corridor. An innovation is different from an invention and is defined as a new method, idea or product.

Breakthrough innovation builds upon other existing ideas or innovations.  The best way to encourage innovation in your organization is to establish an environment that supports creative thinking and new ways of looking at things.

Early in my career I was getting feedback from procurement staff about how long it took to get reporting back from a mainframe system designed to provide competitive analysis of our milk prices vs. what competitors would pay for the same milk.  They would submit tests and the system would provide results two weeks later.  By that time, any potential advantage was lost.  I took the exact same information and developed a Lotus-based program that would generate the information within 10 minutes.  A simple innovation that created significant competitive advantage.

Every organization can develop this native innovation capability, which can lead to huge increases in the value of that organization.  Innovation is never something that comes out of the blue.  It always comes from ideas that build on other ideas.  Nothing is independent.

Innovation involves expanding on the lessons of the past.  They come about when someone can connect the dots between various, seemingly unrelated problems and how they were resolved.  They are almost never moments of flashing brilliance, but rather the result of paying attention to what is right in front of the innovator(s).  They are more the result of the scientific process than of science itself.  Some examples:

  • Gutenberg’s machine improved on already existing presses – it would have happened with or without him.
  • Paper currency was widely used in China in the ninth century but did not appear in Europe until the late 1600s when banks experienced frequent shortages of coins.
  • Horses were domesticated 5,500 years ago, but their adaptation to the battlefield changed the nature of war.
  • In 2014, the USDA developed a new process—using radio frequency energy—that pasteurizes shelled eggs 50 percent faster than the existing process
  • The electric lightbulb was simply the culmination of years of study and experimentation and could be claimed by any number of innovators other than the most famous, Thomas Edison.


If innovation is inevitable then it stands to reason that your organization must excel at identifying the ideas and game-changing opportunities sitting right in front of it.  Here are some ideas:

  1. Provide people with the time to think. Not to think about their specific task but about how it can be done better, faster.
  2. Encourage people to work across lines. Accounting people need to work with operations people if they are to understand how their work affects production.  Salespeople need to work with production so that they can see the product innovations that customers are demanding.
  3. Hold people up to the world when they achieve an innovation. People are proud of these kinds of breakthroughs – and you should be, too.
  4. Promote innovators in your organizational structure. Not everyone will be strong innovators.  You need to have a few of them on your senior team, both to challenge the organization and as a beacon to young innovators that they can be successful.
  5. Identify innovators and get them out into the world. Innovators are dot-connectors and feed from one another.  They will thrive if you expose them to customers, suppliers, competitors and other industries.


Finally, organizations take on the characteristics of the person at the top.  If that person encourages innovative activities, even if that is uncomfortable for them, innovation will happen.  If leadership discourages innovative thinking, the innovators will move quickly to greener pastures.

We are blessed with an innovative culture because of our schools, universities and colleges, industries and our agricultural heritage – which has been innovative, to say the least.  The rewards are ours for the taking.

Maurie Cashman is a member-owner of Agri-Management Farm Services LLC and manages its Aspen Grove Investments brand.