Robert Loderstedt wants you to know three things about him: He’s “an old guy who’s done a lot and seen a lot,” he is a veteran of the United States Marine Corps, and he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro just before his 65th birthday. Past that, Loderstedt, now 66, says it’s all immaterial.
Nevertheless, Loderstedt, president and CEO of the New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program, is an ideas man. He helps companies figure out new ways to build their top-line products and grow their business. He will present “Innovation Engineering: Profitably Growing Your Top Line” on Thursday, June 27, at 8:15 a.m. at the Somerset County Business Partnership in Bridgewater. Cost: $30. Visit www.scbp.org or call 908-218-4300.
Loderstedt espouses an advanced form of brainstorming aimed at generating 50 new ideas for your company. The “advanced” aspect is that it’s not free-form brainstorming, but a structured methodology. The trouble with typical brainstorming sessions in companies, Loderstedt says, is that the whole process usually is too incestuous. “Most of what we brainstorm is what we already know about the business,” he says.
Loderstedt is referring to people on the inside — the same people talking through the same ideas in sessions usually started by a manager’s uninspiring call to a meeting. Staff members roll their eyes and grudgingly nod their way through meetings, agreeing with the boss and just wanting to get back to work.
Diversity is the key. A successful brainstorming session begins with diverse input, Loderstedt says. This is not diversity in the racial or gender sense (though it could be); it is diversity in the types of people consulted for input.
Rather than tapping only managers’ brains, Loderstedt suggests inviting input from all levels of the organization. Equally important could be suggestions from outside the company, from suppliers, clients, customers, and anyone else familiar with the company’s industry. “It could be bankers or accountants,” Loderstedt says. “Whatever offers additional insight.”
Meaningful uniqueness. All companies think they are special. But what really makes a company unique? And what makes it meaningfully unique? What is so different about your company that customers would be willing to spend their money (or more of their money) on you?
Answering these kinds of questions requires confronting reality, Loderstedt says. In his presentation, he hands out pages with a bell curve on them and asks attendees to put an X where they think their companies are in terms of their readiness for growth. The bottom left of the arc is “hopeful,” leading to the top of the curve, where companies are most ready. Once you get to the right part of the curve, you are entering the zone of not doing anything to stay up with the competition. At its terminus, you’re pretty much out of business.
Not everyone is in a position to expand, Loderstedt says, but almost everyone puts an X on the left half of his bell curve. So many business owners think they’re ready to expand, either by introducing something new or by acquiring competitors. But without ideas, those optimistic left-half Xs are pipe dreams, he says. When he asks companies how they are actually going to get to their hoped-for places in three or five years, many of them say they have no idea. “Hope is most powerful when backed up by action,” he says.
It also takes courage.
Risk of Failure. CEOs are often averse to the risks of innovation because new directions take a long time to complete (much less show favorable returns) and because there is a high risk of failure, Loderstedt says. Consequently, a lot of companies don’t even try. Those who do often follow the wrong leads because they do not stop bad ideas in their tracks.
Loderstedt says that typically a smart company will spend a third of its time and 5 percent of its money coming up with ideas, vetting the feasibility of these ideas, and testing them out. “It’s called ‘fail fast, fail cheap,’” Loderstedt says. Say, for example, you want to develop a new way to move boxes throughout a warehouse. If you take that idea and run it through a reality check — say, asking whether the technology exists to do what you want or whether you would have to build it yourself — and then do some research on it to test whether you could pull it off, only to find that you can’t, you have not invested in a potentially crippling endeavor.
Quick math shows that there are two-thirds of your company’s time and 95 percent of its budget left to lose, and this loss occurs in the development and commercialization phases. “Bad ideas get through because people don’t speak up to the boss,” Loderstedt says. So what you get are the remains of disastrous campaigns that litter the American corporate landscape. (Anyone remember New Coke?)
Loderstedt’s presentation is built to make participants face the good, bad, and ugly of their plans for innovation and expansion. The approach fits Loderstedt, who earned his bachelor’s in economics from Rutgers in 1978 and his master’s in business management from Pace University in 1983. The son and namesake of a chrome plater at Singer Manufacturing in Elizabeth, Loderstedt held several sales, management, and strategic positions at Bell and AT&T from 1969 to 1985. He served as the vice president of sales for the Raymond Corporation before he became the CEO of Raymond Handling Technologies in 1990.
In 1997 Loderstedt took the helm of the Morris Plains-based New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program (www.njmep.org), a non-profit that has helped more than 2,000 companies develop more than 3,000 projects. So perhaps his resume is a little more crowded than the three items he offers as his bio. But that fits Loderstedt’s approach too.
“No idea is a stupid idea,” he says. “But not all ideas are good ideas.” Not every one can be followed through with. And even when the number of ideas is plentiful, the best ones boil down to two or three good ones.