Nottingham Spirk co-founder John Nottingham and designer Bill Nottingham spoke about innovation recently at Cleveland’s venerable City Club. Here are some highlights.

John, speaking on company’s origins in a garage in University Circle:

We just started innovating there, for companies big and small. We didn’t know where it would go, we just knew that if you do innovation right and you have an ecosystem that makes sense and you have an environment that’s conducive to innovation, and you have an open mind and a sharing, flat organization, there’s no limit to what you can do.

John, on how the design of Pixar’s headquarters inspired the company to chose an old church to house its Innovation Center:

We wanted to stay in University Circle, didn’t know if we could find anything that could occupy our design and our insights and our prototyping and our engineering [teams]. You have to be creative, so we looked at this church, this Christian Science church that was available. And it doesn’t look like Pixar [headquarters], but it acts like Pixar. It’s got a central atrium. It’s got stacked floors, five floors. Everybody bumps into each other all day long. It just made sense to us.

Bill, commenting on John’s recounting of NS’s helping a bed-pan manufacturer launch the Little Tikes toy company:

It’s the concept that we’ve been refining over the years, we call it creative collisions. You think about two completely opposite things, like a bed pan and a wagon, and you put them together. Think about how many things you could pull [together] that don’t make any sense, but they create something truly new.

John, on the company earning over 1,000 patents:

We’re all about collaboration. We collaborate with our clients, we assign the patents to our clients because they’re the ones who get value for it, and it just happened. When you do a significant innovation, you want to protect it because you have higher margins and you have longer life. The SpinBrush line — 43 patents. Including the ‘try me’ package.

John, on attracting attention from major companies:

The CEO of Panasonic came to Cleveland to visit us for a day, from Japan, because he heard about us. It actually made the papers in Japan.… He spent the day, walked all through our innovation center, and he said, ‘You know, you guys are very different from us. We want to learn from you.’ That’s the CEO of the world’s largest electronics company. The CEO of Walmart visited us after he made a presentation at the City Club. The past three CEOs of Home Depot have visited us for a day, trying to understand, get their arms around innovation. … I call it big to small to big. Big companies have real challenges creating breakthrough things — they can do core innovation, they can’t do breakthrough innovation, and they’ll privately admit that. So they go from big to small, like through a collaboration with us, and back to big again.

John, on biomimicry:

We’re involved with Great Lakes Biomimicry, which has a program with the University of Akron and some other institutions, talking about the concept of biomimicry and a Ph.D. Fellow program that’s unique in the world. We have a Ph.D. fellow we sponsored at Nottingham Spirk who’s from Portugal, and 25 other Cleveland organizations have sponsored these fellows.

Bill, on the company’s culture:

It’s a family business [in addition to the founders, there are two other Nottinghams and two Spirks at the company], but with the cultural aspect of it, it’s a family business. We’re a flat [management] organization, we have unlimited paid time off for our associates. We are very accommodating, we trust our associates so that they will trust us. We want to get all that extra stuff out of the way so we can create wonderful things.

Bill, in response to question about process:

To really simplify the concept we call it vertical innovation. A lot of companies do what we call horizontal handoffs. The insights group gets this report, and they hand it off to the designers and the designers say, ‘Hey, I got an idea,’ and they show the engineers and they say ‘That’s not going to work,’ and they hand it back, so they’ve got to go back, nothing happens because nobody’s working together. We created a vertically integrated building where every project has an insights lead, a design lead, an engineering lead, either electronic, mechanical, or biomedical lead, a prototyping lead, a sourcing lead, working all the time together. So every meeting has this cohesive group.

Bill, in response to question about blending rational and creative ways of thinking:

One of the things that we strategically did about six or seven years ago is we brought a lot more rational people in. To be completely honest, we really evolved as a company by doing that. We developed these programs that were cohesive. We started out as a design firm, people that design things and engineer, but we have evolved into a business innovation firm. The important thing about that is design is great, but if it doesn’t make business sense, it doesn’t make sense.

Bill, in response to fostering creative thinking over the long term:

You’ve got to be relentless. It’s like working out. They gym is the most packed on January 2. Come March, it’s like there’s nobody there. You gotta keep going.” John: “Innovation is not a thing we do on Thursday. You think about creativity, you live creativity. It’s not an event, it’s a process. Embrace it.” Bill: “And you gotta know when to turn it off, too. Take it from my wife. You gotta have a shut-off valve or you’ll burn out. You gotta have a balance, you gotta have a home life, you gotta get sleep and you gotta collaborate.

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