We often associate "innovation" with groundbreaking industries like Cleantech or Space Exploration; tech-related topics like Web 3.0; or game-changing concepts like outsourcing or Facebook.
But in reality, innovation can come from much simpler places, as I was reminded recently by a sub sandwich.
Let me explain. Scanning the news recently, I read that Subway CEO Don Fertman appeared on an episode of Undercover Boss, the CBS reality show where corporate executives work alongside the “grunts” in their organizations to see what really goes on at their businesses.
Fertman, who’s been with Subway for 29 years and is credited with much of the chain’s growth, worked alongside store employees baking bread, chopping tomatoes and making sandwiches for customers. He told media that the experience revealed some "terrific best practices" that he plans to share throughout Subway.
What can small businesses learn from Fertman’s experience?
1. There’s room for innovation everywhere.
You may think that your small business is too “ordinary” for innovation. But it doesn’t get much simpler or more basic than a sub sandwich shop. If there’s room for innovation when it comes to placing cold cuts on bread, there’s room for innovation at your dry cleaning business, accounting practice, retail store…you get the idea.
2. There’s inspiration everywhere.
You may think innovation requires reading lofty books, taking expensive seminars or going back to school. As Fertman’s experience shows, often the best way to innovate is to look right in front of you. How is your company doing things now, and what can it do better?
3. There’s innovation in everyone.
Have you ever tried to brainstorm by yourself? It doesn’t work too well, does it? Ideas multiply faster the more people you have involved. Get everyone in your company thinking about innovation, and you’ll get more ideas. And by everyone, I mean everyone. If you want to make your mailroom more efficient, don’t just get your top managers talking about it. Get your mailroom guy involved. While you’re at it, pick the UPS driver’s and mail carrier’s brains, too.
4. Innovation is 99 percent observation.
Fertman didn’t go into the situation pushing new ideas on the employees. His role was simply to watch, listen and learn -- to observe. As entrepreneurs, we naturally try to direct and control situations -- that’s part of our nature. When you’re seeking to inspire innovation, however, sometimes you need to sit back, keep your mouth shut and simply observe.