When you own or manage a small to mid-sized company, innovation is key to staying relevant and current. In today’s business world, complacency can cause your business to run the risk of becoming obsolete and losing market share and clients in the process. One of the benefits of being a smaller company is that you have the ability to be quick and decisive in actions that can move the business forward. The flip side of that is that you can also recover just as fast from decisions that don’t seem to be working – so don’t be afraid to be innovative and try out new ideas.
For example: Problems will show up in all businesses from time to time and how you analyze those issues can either lead to innovation or to just keeping the status quo. If you want to be more innovative, change how you approach problem solving. Try a new location if possible – getting out of the office and away from normal distractions can lead to new ideas. Consider brainstorming solutions that you know won’t work, or shouldn’t be done, first. I know that sounds odd, but sometimes you will find little seeds of opportunity from those “terrible” ideas that can grow into practical solutions. And, at the very least, seeing “bad” solutions may inspire your team to be unafraid to share concepts they may have thought would be perceived as useless suggestions. You may also want to involve people who you do not normally ask to join you, and create an environment where people feel encouraged and supported in sharing their ideas. Ideally, your team should feel comfortable sharing ideas at all times because problem solving is sometimes best done on the fly in real time. Waiting for a formal meeting to address issues can smother innovation, so encourage people to speak up when problems pop up and to not sit on them waiting for the “right” time. Or, if that is now feasible for you, at least have a meeting agenda/virtual suggestion box that everyone has access to where they can park their ideas until they can be discussed as a group.
Another important consideration is to learn to routinely evaluate your business and assess risk – not just from a liability standpoint, but from a cost of lost opportunity, too. While I am a believer that processes and routines can be great things, sometimes they don’t allow you to clearly see opportunities to do things a new way. Take the time to consider and solicit feedback from your employees and clients. I like to review how we operate, as a company and as individuals, from a More, Better, Different approach. What are we doing well that we could be doing more of? What are we doing currently that we could improve on and do better? What are we doing, or not doing, that we need to change and do differently? When I look at our business through that lens and have conversations with our team and clients about what they think they would like from us, it helps to spotlight the areas where we should focus our resources to improve by either bringing in new systems or simplifying our processes. It also introduces new ideas and concepts that I may not have been aware of because it broadens my scope of information beyond just what I can see from my view of the business. What I do on a daily/weekly/monthly basis is not the same as what others do in my company – therefore they have experiences that I don’t have but are vital to my planning for the growth and trajectory of the organization. Which leads to my next point…
If you do nothing else, please empower your team to speak up about how they think differently than you. Creativity and diversity of thought are absolute musts for innovation. Cultivating an environment where differences can be respectfully explored and discussed can lead to new offerings, new systems and most importantly, new business. I also suggest that you encourage and employ consistent professional development and training for your team to not only learn new skills and ideas, but to also learn how to think about and approach the challenges that arise within your organization. Take opportunities to learn the latest technologies and determine how they may help, or hinder, your business. Continuous learning, formal or informal, should be a cornerstone of every business model. Peter Drucker once said: “We now accept the fact that learning is a lifelong process of keeping abreast of change. And the most pressing task is to teach people how to learn.” To be innovative, you must embrace the idea of always being a student, open to new information and ways of doing business. To be successful, you must actively seek that information, evaluate and refine your approach to managing your company. Ultimately, innovation means change, and change is not always comfortable. But self-directed innovation should definitely be preferable to forced change or getting left behind.