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How To Build Innovation Into Your Business

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I have facilitated many strategic and business plans, and read many more, where either embedded in vision and mission statements or spelt out in goals and objectives, is the desire to “be an innovative company”.

Why? What does this mean? Why is innovation important to your business?
To many businesses, when they say they are “innovative” it just means they are flexible and helpful in their service. You want a cashflow projection when you get your tax done? Sure we can do that. So you want a flexible payment plan after we provide you with our legal services? No problem we can tailor one for you. You want a house built off plan but you need a wall repositioned? No problem.
Well, that’s not innovation, that’s just giving good service!
However to some businesses, innovation is critical to the business’ development and growth – innovation that keeps it one step ahead of the competition; innovation that creates a point of difference; innovation that ensures the business and its staff keep developing and growing. In such businesses you need to build innovation into your business model.
To start with it is important to be clear why innovation is necessary in your business and what you mean by innovation. Your staff need to be clear whether they are required to come up with the cure for cancer or whether it is about small but significant change, say to customer service systems. It is also important to realise that innovation means change, particularly if innovation is to be a constant. Are your staff and systems ready to cope with that? Stress is not conducive to innovation so a madly busy office will not be a hot bed for innovation.

Once you have reviewed your internal systems and the physical and cultural environment and you are ready to start, look outside of your competition for opportunities for innovation. Look outside your industry and at trends around you. I have consulted to many service companies who have successfully looked at trends in manufacturing to put in systems originally designed for manufacturing. I have also seen companies who have picked up technology trends and seen how they can improve their processes, including one company that used social media as the way to collaborate on projects with a geographically widespread team.
There are in effect four types of innovative forms – product innovation, pricing innovation (is another model from another industry better for your company?), package innovation (what can be bundled for a better customer experience?), and process innovation. In this opening phase, look to “embed” the search for innovation.
For a start, seek and employ people with the skill sets necessary to drive innovation in your company. It doesn’t necessarily follow that skills in technology means someone is innovative, however it probably is an advantage. Certainly, new technology means that a certain set of skills is required to understand and operate it. Apart from hard skills, look for recruits who can, and will train existing staff to respond to change. Change is the biggest driver of innovation and the psychology of staff need to be tuned to the challenge rather than the fear. Staff have to be nimble and ready to see, learn and develop responses quickly.
This very quickly grows on itself – many studies worldwide have shown that innovative people want to work for innovative companies. A Deloitte Global survey found that millenials are strongly influenced by how innovative a company is before they decide to work for it.
Companies need to focus on behaviours that foster innovation. No point aiming for being innovative when management attitudes, structures and systems create barriers. This means getting rid of silos and command and control structures, and instead creating environments of collaboration and flexible decision-making.
In order to do this it is critical that the tone is set from the top. The management and leaders of the business need to be committed to innovation. This doesn’t mean Silicon Valley style offices with staff lounges filled with computer games. It does mean however support for new ideas, and the commitment to take risks.
Having established a culture ready for change, make thinking about innovation a habit:-
  1. Schedule it – put standing commitments to review different areas of the business to see how it can be improved, diarise customer focus group meetings;
  2. External input – invite customers and outside industry thinkers to discuss trends and other ideas.
  3. See challenges as opportunities – in meeting agendas, always discuss different ideas to meet challenges rather than defensive ones, seek to see how they may create opportunities;
  4. Request feedback – on a regular basis (see point 1) ask for ideas about problems and issues in the company from team members – ask them to provide at least two solutions then follow up;
  5. Reward innovation – be prepared to reward failure as long as it is reviewed and a better idea ensues, if it doesn’t work it’s not a failure because you’ve learned what not to do and that is valuable in itself.
In summary, clear your decks, inculcate new thinking, plan and schedule innovation, seek creativity, look outside your normal viewpoint, and reward innovation. Take these steps on a consistent basis and people will respond. If you don’t innovate, you may go the way of Kodak in a new era of digital cameras – toward extinction.
Let me know your ideas about building innovation into your business. How do you keep your eyes open for opportunities?
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