Most business owners – and especially startup entrepreneurs – want their businesses, products, services and employees to be “innovative.” But while innovation is one of today’s most desired business traits, many businesses today end up with anti-innovation cultures without ever realizing it.
In part that’s because so many businesses are focused on cost, efficiency and short-term growth, rather than creativity and a longer-term mindset. This can leave little room for fresh ideas.
When the daily mantra is “do-more-with-less”, innovation can seem much too messy, inefficient and expensive to take root. Many businesses seek stability through structure and predictability rather than less-predictable innovation.
But it’s important to understand that the mechanisms needed to grow a business are often different from those that simply keep it from falling apart. In order to grow and innovate, you have to be willing to explore a little and put up with some uncertainty and ambiguity.
To instill a mindset of innovation at your business, you may need to adopt some different ways of thinking.
Here are four ways to help create more innovation in your business:
1. Don’t make everything about efficiency and scale: Typical business management practices in companies of all sizes favor efficiency and process at the expense of experimentation. But being innovative requires a test-and-learn approach that includes taking some risks and trying different things. And that, of course, means that some won’t work out. But those “failures” are like down payments on the things that do work and that will help your business grow.
2. Embrace uncertainty: The fundamental nature of innovation is that nothing is certain. Businesses that are best at innovating are often dominated by ambiguity and change. Get used to it and create an environment that allows for experimentation, invention and exploration. It might be nice to talk about achieving near “perfect” performance, but growth experimentation often produces much the opposite. Be careful about how strongly you insist on efficient, waste-free execution. You can easily end up killing inventive ideas, as the path to innovation can be messy.
3. Seek small innovations: Sometimes, thinking smaller is the best way to achieve innovation. Innovations don’t need to be big or audacious. Setting – and achieving – small, proximate goals and innovations may be a better way to keep the ball rolling. In fact, most innovations are small, incremental things that are close to the core activities of your business – be they products, services, processes or all of the above.
Innovations can and should build on things that have already been done – they don’t have to be revolutionary. The kind of ideas small businesses and startups should want to generate are all about creating new value for customers. Don’t worry if it’s already been tried, looks like something old in a new package or is borrowed from another industry.
What’s most important is that they create value for your customers and that no one else is offering them in quite the same way. The best innovators learn how to combine existing things a little differently or transfer concepts from other industries or domains.
4. Don’t try to isolate innovation: Sure, innovation can be a choppy process that is prone to failure. But don’t try to isolate it within certain places or people in your business. In other words, don’t feel like you need to segregate innovation from the rest of your business, where you have people who “execute” and others who “innovate.”
Execution and innovation can go hand in hand, and the bridges that help connect them are information sharing and learning. When you encourage employees – and yourself – to learn about new things and avoid “my way or the highway” type thinking, you will foster innovation in your business.
Finally, understand that “growth experimentation” is a game of probabilities. The sooner you get customers actively engaged in your experimentation game, the more likely you will be to win.
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