Every company, including yours, is innovative. This is why Ford’s current cars are rather more sophisticated than its Model T. It’s why you no longer have to hand crank your washing machine. It’s the reason a visit to the dentist is less painful than it was a generation ago. Every business makes changes for the better, such as improving:
- Product styling
- The way products are manufactured
- Marketing techniques
- Sales methods
- Delivery methods
- Employee health and safety
- And on and on and on
Compare any business of today — and look at the entire business — with itself or its counterpart of a or generation or two ago. You will inevitably see changes — mostly for the better (or at least intended to have been for the better). This is the result of innovation — not breakthrough innovation. But innovation nonetheless.
And let us be honest here. Many businesses have done very well with their slow, steady pace of innovation — at least until a disruptive innovation comes along and makes their products or way of doing business obsolete. However, if you want to grow your business, if you want the prestige of being a leader in the field or if you are threatened by a disruptive innovation (or simply want to prepare yourself for the eventuality of a disruptive innovation), then you need to boost your company’s innovativeness. Fortunately, there is almost unlimited scope to do so. Here are the first steps you need to take.
Make a Decision
The very first thing you need to do is to make a decision as to whether or not you really want your company to be more innovative. It will require making changes in operations. You will probably not like a lot of those changes. Your employees will dislike them even more, because they will have less control over those changes. In general, people do not like creativity and change. People who work in conservative companies are likely to be there, at least in part, because they like the stability and lack of change in their work activities. Do you really want to wreck all that disruption upon you and your employees? If not, be comfortable in your moderate level of innovation. In spite of what innovation consultants will tell you, there’s nothing wrong with maintaining a low level of innovation providing your business is financially viable and achieving the aims you have set for it.
Strategy Definition and Action
Assuming you’ve decided to boost your competitiveness, then dust off your strategy and take a look at it. As I have written in the past, leaders in innovation do not focus on innovation. Rather they relentlessly strive to achieve and surpass their strategic vision. If your strategy definition is generic or boring, you need to redefine it into something unique for your market. Once you’ve done that, you need to communicate the new strategy and align your company’s innovative actions towards achieving or surpassing that strategy.
Lastly, you will doubtless have to change your corporate culture into one that is open to a higher level of innovation. This is no simple task. It involves:
- Communicating why you are changing your approach to innovation, how it benefits the company and how it benefits each employee.
- Changing the way ideas are reviewed.
- Changing the way you work with business partners.
- Creating processes for testing and implementing risky ideas.
- Training middle managers to support the creativity and ideas of their subordinates.
- Changing attitudes and responses to failure.
- Motivating people to be more creative in their thinking at work as well as embracing the ideas of others.
Don’t Worry About Ideas Just Yet
You may be wondering why I have not stressed the importance of ideas in enhanced innovation. The truth is, your employees have lots of ideas. They have creative minds. You can also hire creative people in the future. But there is no point in wasting time on ideas until you have the mechanisms in place to accept, test and implement creative ideas. If you start by running brainstorms and suggestion schemes that collect 100s of ideas, you will end up with 100s ideas and no action. If you focus your innovation on a unique strategy and adopt your corporate culture to be more open to creativity and innovation, then ideas will come easily. Moreover, you will not need a database full of ideas. Most of them will not be relevant to your strategy in any event. You will simply need big, creative ideas that help you achieve strategic goals.
Easier Said than Done
As we say in English, this is easier said than done. I’ve only covered the surface of some radical actions you would need to take if you want you company to be significantly more innovative than it is today. Moreover, these changes would be disruptive for your business and, that would almost certainly result in employees resisting the change.
This means that you need to decide whether or not you really want your business to be more innovative and whether that boost in innovation would result in a sufficient boost in your company’s bottom line. If you are not ready to make those changes or they are unlikely to pay off, then be happy that you are still an innovative company providing quality products and services to your customers. You can even call yourself innovative on your company web site and brochures. You’ll simply have to accept that your company is not a leading innovator. But there’s nothing wrong with that. Really.
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Jeffrey Baumgartner is the author of the book, The Way of the Innovation Master; the author/editor of Report 103, a popular newsletter on creativity and innovation in business. He is currently developing and running workshops around the world on Anticonventional Thinking, a radical new approach to achieving goals through creativity — and an alternative to brainstorming.