As you scan the marketplace today, it feels like your small business is doing pretty well. Your financials look good. Your employees are productive. There’s steady customer demand for your products or services. So can you afford to kick back and rest on your laurels for awhile?
The answer is no. As too many businesses have learned the hard way, clinging to the status quo invariably results in a loss of market share and, in the worst cases, a steep decline in revenue. The truth is, every business has to keep changing in order to survive—if for no other reason than their competitors are changing. And productive change can only occur when the CEO or business owner encourages a culture of innovation.
Here are ways to make innovation an integral part of your business:
First identify what innovation is not. When a business puts an individual in charge of innovation, the message others in the company get is “That’s their job, not mine.” But innovation is a group effort, relying on a fertile cross-functional exchange of ideas. No one person can make innovation happen. The same principle applies to the urge to “project manage” innovation by making it all about timelines, budgets and the allocation of resources. This bureaucratic approach stifles creativity and tangles the effort up in red tape.
Determine what you want innovation to achieve. Early on in the innovation process, you need to understand (first for yourself, then for your employees) exactly what results you hope to achieve or what challenges need to be addressed.
Invite innovative thinking. Innovation is all about creating an environment where ideas—no matter how off-the-wall—are encouraged and supported. Let employees know that you welcome their ideas and will enthusiastically implement those ideas that demonstrate the most promise. Make it clear that you value their participation and trust them to make their best efforts to generate fresh ideas.
Put your commitment into action. Demonstrate your trust by giving employees time during the work-day to participate in brainstorming activities that foster innovation. Generating ideas can involve anything from searching the Web for relevant information, taking part in forums or just exchanging ideas with one another. Think about devoting a conference room to impromptu gatherings, plastering the conference room walls with paper for people to jot down their ideas and/or providing plenty of Post-Its to track those ideas.
Let people fail and fail fast. Authentic innovation comes about only through trial and error—meaning, not every idea you and your staff come up with is going to be a breakthrough or game-changer. Businesses that discourage, or even punish, failure will never grow.
The same holds true for businesses that want only “perfect” ideas. No such thing exists. Ideas that get implemented but fail to get off the ground still offer valuable lessons to be learned for further efforts. Innovation only happens by taking risks, which in turn means letting go of the fear of failure and refusing to be stymied by setbacks.
Devise a system where the most promising ideas can be reviewed by an in-house team and put into action. If they don’t work, start again. Failing is acceptable as long as unsuccessful ideas are discarded quickly and the innovative process is allowed to continue.
When employees are encouraged to take risks, there’s no limit to what they can come up with. By making innovation a continuous process within your business, you increase the odds of not only devising changes needed to keep the business moving forward, but possible breakthrough ideas that take your revenue-generating opportunities to the next level.