RALEIGH … Focus on the customer.

These days, it’s no surprise that is the key to business success. Understand who our customers are, what they do, how they do it, and then offer them real value. If we can do that in a competitive way, where our revenues exceed our costs, then we’re in business.

In order to sustain our businesses, we must remain close to our markets and innovate. So the corporate battle cry has sounded. As the acclaimed management guru Tom Peters prescribes, we must “innovate or die.”

If staying close to our markets and innovating are the obvious keys to survival, then why don’t companies do these things better and more often? Here are the top reasons (drawn from my boyhood on the farms of Manhattan):

• We’re too busy chasing the pigs to build the fence.

We’re too busy. Either we think we’re doing things well … because we’re busy … or we’re caught in the “Catch 22” of knowing we need to innovate but not making the time to get started. The key to breaking this cycle? Quit chasing so many pigs.

• We’ve been planting that way all our lives.

Farmers rotate their crops to prevent disease. Without seasonal rotation, disease-causing insects multiply and undermine their investments. So it is in the business world. We can choose to change the way we work, or we can continue to work the “way we’ve always done things.” The world will evolve to the point where we no longer can respond to it.

• We sow the seeds but can’t reap the rewards.

Successful innovation is about collaboration and execution. It’s not just about sowing the seeds of creativity; it’s also about harvesting them. Our businesses are ripe with great ideas that we “have” to implement to win new customers. However, without organizational focus and discipline, those great ideas will never yield their full rewards.

• We can’t put the horse out to pasture.

We fall in love with our ideas. If they don’t pan out, we can’t bear to cut our losses. Rather than writing the idea off as bad … or at least “ahead of its time” … our egos lean on a long list of excuses that, once resolved, will prove that our idea was worthy. Most ideas that look good in the conceptual stage should never leave the drawing board. It’s just as important to know when to kill a great idea as it is to know how to make it flourish.

So how do we renew the fields of innovation in our corporations?

The first step is to develop the conviction that innovation is indeed the key to our survival. Without that commitment, it will be too easy to succumb to the personal and organizational challenges that will inevitably present themselves.

Armed with our passion to succeed, we then must visualize an iterative process by which candidate ideas will be generated, vetted, developed, refined and delivered. Embracing the customer’s voice throughout our innovation process is our last critical, and arguably most important, success factor.

Sam Bayer, Ph.D., is chief executive of MarketAcuity LLC, a strategic marketing and consulting company in Raleigh.