One of today’s biggest business challenges is staying ahead of the curve – coming up with innovative new ideas in a business and economic climate that is not only demanding constant change, but that is also under constant pressure to do more with less.

With a global reputation as an “R&D machine,” The Dow Chemical Company (Dow) has a proven track record of innovation – leading one of the largest corporate R&D investment programs with combined spending of more than $1.6 billion for 2010. The company operates 45 major R&D centers around the world and has more than 5,000 employees dedicated to R&D, including many who are devoted to the packaging industry, and nearly 1,100 Technical Service & Development (TS&D) employees who work directly with customers on new product innovations.

In all, Dow R&D encompasses a dedicated, global team of researchers who are concentrating on more than 500 major projects at any given time, including advanced electronic materials, new plastics for better packaging, agricultural products, and energy-saving building and construction systems – among other innovations.

Innovation is an important business strategy at Dow. It’s one that works, and it’s one that others can learn from for success. The following are sure-fire steps that packaging industry companies can implement to encourage innovation today – and see results tomorrow.

Step 1: Assemble the Right Team - and the Right Leadership

“I can find a hundred men who will tell me an idea won't work; what I want are men who will make it work.” – Herbert H. Dow

Innovation is chaotic and messy – and every company needs a team that can easily handle the ebb and flow of a changing business. While everyone has different skills, attitude and aptitude, all can play a role in innovation. The key is assembling the right team with the right compelling leaders that lead and help make connections.

Make sure the team is staffed with people who can play the roles of Creators (people who freely generate creative ideas), Collaborators (people who make people and ideas better), Challengers (people who use critical thinking to thoroughly examine ideas), and Collators (people who organize ideas using logic). Everyone plays a role and team selection is critical to the success of projects.

Ask good questions to screen for innovation and identify those creative thinkers and compelling leaders. Attitude is critical. Look for those who want to achieve success; have an impact; take calculated risks; and find ways to get a project done, not reasons why it can’t be done.

It’s also important to view innovation as a universal talent – innovation can be done by everyone but only certain people are accomplished at the sort of discontinuous innovative thinking that elicits radical change. People perform much better when their skill, attitude and aptitude match with the needs of their role.

Step 2: Walk Around With an Open Jar of Peanut Butter

“You got your chocolate in my peanut butter!” – Reese’s Peanut Butter commercial

When Harry Reese, a former dairy farmer and shipping foreman for the Hershey candy company, decided to start his own candy operation, his unexpected idea to combine chocolate and peanut butter proved a winner.

Companies can create their own culture of innovation by adopting the same attitude – by encouraging and being open to new ideas and creating opportunities for “collisions” of ideas. In Dow’s case, the goal is always to have those “creative collisions” with customers – their product and innovative ideas plus our products and innovative ideas equal something great. Innovation requires a diverse, information-rich and interaction-rich environment.

Step 3: Focus on the Emerging Trends

Trends, like horses, are easier to ride in the direction they are going. – John Naisbitt, author of Megatrends

The biggest barrier to new innovation is current success – what makes a company successful to a certain point doesn’t always guarantee its future. Change is good – and it spawns better innovation in the end. Consider the Sony Walkman versus the Apple iPod or Blockbuster versus Netflix. Each earlier innovation became more innovative because companies focused on what’s next – not what’s now.

As a company, Dow takes a macro view and focuses on megatrends first – big societal issues such as health and nutrition, energy, transportation and infrastructure, and the demand for consumer staples in developing economies – and explores ways to drive positive change, and therefore innovation, via new products.

In the case of energy and sustainability – both increasingly critical factors for packaging companies looking for ways to improve efficiency, production, and create smaller carbon footprints – Dow has developed innovative resins for plastic food packaging that require less energy and materials to produce, yet are just as durable.

Step 4: Brainstorm Until It Hurts

“No idea is so outlandish that it should not be considered with a searching but at the same time steady eye.” – Winston Churchill

When companies are problem solving, it’s easy to fall into the rut of uncreative thinking. We focus so much on solutions that we lose sight of the question – and asking the wrong question often result in wrong answers. When faced with a problem, most companies immediately turn to tried-and-true solutions they’ve always used. Instead, keep an innovation folder (a “bucket list” of creative concepts you are waiting to try), generate lots of ideas – and listen to where they come from. Innovation requires many ideas which come from a variety of different sources. In fact, it is estimated that it takes 3,000 raw ideas to achieve one commercial success.

For example, Dow’s Technical Services & Development team regularly brainstorms with customers to develop the kind of products that meet their needs. Additionally, the company’s groundbreaking Film Application Development Center (FADC), which opened in 2009, has hosted more than 100 different customers for more than 1,500 trials to invent, experiment and product the commercial-grade films that work best for them.

Step 5: Think Like a Scientist - and Create Prototypes

“The thinking that got us to where we are today is not the thinking that will get us to where we want to be tomorrow.” – Albert Einstein

Use good science and technology practices, including good documentation and knowledge management practices. Get customers involved early and clearly define performance requirements, and use outside experts for perspective. And always recall prior experience to avoid mistakes.

Prototypes are critical in this regard. For example, at Dow’s FADC, the company helps customers develop structures that are specifically geared toward food manufacturers for testing and developing new packaging products. We work jointly with our customers to help them develop better packaging in areas such as food and industrial packaging. Prototypes are essential to better test the concept and work with various members of the value chain. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a prototype is worth a million.

It’s Dow’s dedication to creating new products that has helped the company find success and multiple opportunities in the flexible food and specialty packaging market – including in such diverse areas as dry foods, bakery films, meat and cheese packaging, snack foods, liquid and semi-solid foods, and others. This market-specific experience translates into products that offer integrity, durability and flexibility for Dow customers worldwide – and the right balance of properties to produce consistently high performance films.

Step 6: Design with Mother Nature in Mind

“The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased, and not impaired in value.” – Theodore Roosevelt

Sustainability is critical these days and it requires making every decision with the future in mind. It is about our relationship with the world around us – creating economic prosperity and social value while contributing to the preservation of the planet. Dow uses such tools as a Simplified Environmental Impact Calculator* (SEIC) to calculate a product’s potential effect on the environment. It is very useful for evaluating different packages versus each other in terms key sustainability metrics.

For example, in Dow’s case, the company views lifecycle thinking as an objective, scientific approach – a comprehensive view of a product from cradle to grave that offers a critical look at each packaging application and its function. At the end of the day, packaging is part of a product delivery system – not a separate piece. Reducing the amount of packaging and then throwing away the product because of damage or spoilage wastes more resources than what is used to make the original protective packaging.

Finally, and often most importantly, learning from failure is key to innovation. Truly innovative companies know how to deal with the ideas that don’t work. Keep a record of successes – and the processes used to get there – and repeat as necessary.

The Dow Chemical Company
(281) 966-4239