Small businesses are the major driver in both job growth and innovation in the United States. But when you are actually running a small business, finding the time to foster innovation can be overwhelmed by cash, economic, resource and time constraints. Here are four tips that I have found that foster innovation at my company and that I believe can be applied to most businesses:
Encourage problem solving. It is not only important that your employees highlight problems but also come up with potential solutions on how to solve them. One way that I've found that encourages my team to innovate is that, when one of them presents me with an issue, I ask them, "How do you think we should solve this?"
Often times they already have a good solution and just need the go ahead to mobilize the resources to tackle the problem. Other times it makes sense to encourage brainstorming. I also believe that it is important to recognize employees who innovate, usually at all hands meetings.
Institute FedEx Day so your employees can "scratch" their own itch. We found that a number of our employees wanted to work on some wild and innovative ideas or tackle little annoyances/inefficiencies - but their workload kept getting in the way. To help address this and keep employees motivated, we instituted the FedEx day (Atlassian Style).
Once every two months, almost everyone in the company is given 24 hours to work on the pet project of their choice. The only rule is that they have to start and finish the project within 24 hours. At the end of the 24 hours each employee is given the opportunity to (and I mean required to) demonstrate the outcome to the entire company. This approach has a number of benefits. The employee works to solve something that they "wanted to", the company has a solution to a problem or the beginnings of a new product, and your customers are better served. This works not only for our programmers but also for the customer service and sales team.
Become the Undercover Boss. Similar to the TV show Undercover Boss, every senior employee in the company should take turns working on things that are not part of their job profile. Your marketing manager could spend a day in the shoes of the customer support representative, the CEO could do the job of a sales person for a day and your sales manager could spend a day on the operations floor.
This not only helps people appreciate the other person's job but most importantly brings a fresh perspective to that job function. We found that the best ideas come from those that are not doing the job day in and day out. A fresh set of eyes can diagnose and fix ingrained problems never noticed by others.
Enlist your customers to innovate. We recently started calling few customers every week to ask them questions such as "Are you happy with our service?" and "Are there things that we can improve?" and "Why do you use a particular feature more than the other?" To our surprise, our customers not only highlighted things that we can improve but also suggested potential solutions.
Instead of trying to prioritize new features or products in a vacuum, a simple phone call is now helping us work on those features that matter most to the customer. The better your product can serve the customer, the more they are willing to use it and the more they are willing to pay. And, of course, the positive feedback we are receiving from this calling effort is shared with the company and is helping inspire everyone to keep innovating!
How have you successfully fostered innovation at your business? What tips would you add?
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Prasad Thammineni is a serial entrepreneur and CEO of OfficeDrop, a document management and document scanning service that helps small businesses go paperless and manage their content in the cloud. With OfficeDrop, you can search, access and share your paper and digital files from anywhere, anytime.