The food and water of sustained business growth for many seem as illusive and abstract as what the future may or may not hold. We are referring to the catalytic qualities of engagement and innovation, the traits characterizing every successful brand from Apple to Starbucks, or Amazon to Patagonia. For Abram Walton, discovering the patterns and practices generating innovation and engagement, then teaching students and organizations of every size and sphere how to produce these qualities, and, moreover, how to measure and monetize them, has been his life’s quest. Recently recognized as one of LEAD Brevard’s “4 under 40,” he has been a professor of management at the Nathan M. Bisk College of Business at Florida Tech since 2012.
Real World Experience
“I grew up in the Pacific Northwest. My father was a fireman and a business owner, so I was reared in an environment encouraging service and entrepreneurialism,” Walton recalled. “Being in a state that was an early adopter of dual enrollment, I pursued a fire science and college preparatory path. I was interested in becoming a fireman and equally interested in computer science. Once I became certified as a firefighter, I started thinking about my life goals and realized how motivated I was by knowledge, challenge and achievement.” Those terminal and instrumental values (Where do I want to end up? How will I get there?) drew him toward business.
“As a result of entering some business competitions, I was recruited to be a manager by one of the largest retailers in the world,” he says. It was a great experience, especially since he planned on going back to school to earn his master’s. At 21 years old, he was running the operations at a $100 million retail store, learning to manage P&L and inventory. “I discovered numerous seminal points there, like, ‘If I didn’t care about my people, they wouldn’t care about the customers.’ Which is a focus on the purpose motive versus a strictly profit motive; to have a profit motive disengaged from purpose makes people feel, well, pointless,” he added.
“That company had five core principles: stock it, price it, show the value, take their money (make checkout easy) and teach. I realized we weren’t teaching our employees. When I began showing the manager, of say the automotive department, that he or she ran a multimillion dollar company, that changed how they viewed themselves and the department; I was learning about engagement.”
The Journey to Academia and Beyond…
“During this time, my undergraduate mentors had moved to other institutions and were calling me about continuing my education. One of my former professors said he would wave my tuition and give me a stipend to come to Purdue, so I said goodbye to retail, and my wife and I moved to Indiana,” he said. By the time Walton had finished, he was involved in publishing several books and papers, and stayed on for his Ph.D. He was able to complete his doctorate in two-and-a-half to three years. “My professors were former executives. When on consulting trips, they wanted real-world experience, so it was a great fit for me.”
“There is a lot of innovation going on in academia,” he explained, “and institutions are working to figure out how to keep faculty engaged and passionate about their specialty and not ‘get tenure and unplug.’ Or, publish for the sake of publishing. This is like producing patents for the sake of receiving a patent, rather than pursuing patents protecting what is brought to the market. Don’t get me wrong; there is a benefit in purely theoretical research and development,” Walton said.
“I like to play within the academic mold while having the opportunity to expand beyond it. Schools like Babson College, which has been ranked No. 1 in entrepreneurship for almost 20 years, is a great example of this type of innovation. I was drawn to Florida Tech because of where it is going, and it was a private institution with a non-tenured environment. Innovation is at the core of what we do. We tell undergrads, ‘As you start, the job you will seek when you graduate probably doesn’t exist right now. Think and learn about business, not a particular business.’”
On Innovation and Engagement
“As society becomes more specialized, we look at nascent knowledge domains coming into existence. Most don’t realize often these knowledge domains are first mocked or trivialized, then over time are accepted. There weren’t always MDs, CPAs or CFPs; these evolved through specialization. As we become more specialized, this type of credentialing becomes more important,” Walton said.
“We standardize the medical or accounting fields, because these areas have an accepted body of knowledge. There are defined strategies, methods and outcome assessments that are measurable. The same can be applied to innovation. The industry has matured to the point where a HR executive can hire someone who specializes in innovation. Just like you look for credentials for a lawyer, CPA or a project manager, now you can become a certified innovation specialist, through the International Association of Innovation Professionals. They even publish a ‘Global Innovation Science Handbook,’ because the body of knowledge has been well defined and available.”
Walton discussed another misnomer. He says people think innovation and creativity are the same thing, but they are not. The creative innovator is a problem finder and problem solver. In fact Walton says, the key to being a great problem solver is finding the problem first; that is often the challenge. Innovation in a person or company is primarily identifying problems and then finding solutions you can monetize.
“Where innovation or engagement lags, it is never one thing. W. Edwards Deming had 14 points for total quality management. The bottom line is, if people don’t care, it is probably the fault of the leader who is not able or not willing to initiate transformative change. Great leaders care for their people; they have a desire to see them succeed and invest in training them. They cast and communicate the vision well and surround themselves with people smarter than they are. They are tuned to life cycle management. Like Jeff Bezos says, ‘If you aren’t living in a growth stage, you are in stasis, or you’re on the verge of decline.”
Walton’s recommended books on building engagement include: “The New Economics” by Deming, “The Fifth Discipline” by Senge and “Fourth Generation Management” by Joiner. He asserts, “None are new because these things don’t change.” On innovation he suggests, “The Jobs To Be Done” or “Outcome Driven Innovation” articles from Harvard Business Review.