Contrary to popular belief, future-proofing your business doesn't have to be difficult, time-consuming or expensive. Nor is coming up with future-proofing ideas as hard as it sounds when you make a point of regularly planning ahead in business. As I recently found while researching my book, Make Change Work For You, discovering how to stay relevant is largely a process of consistently making simple, evolutionary changes versus chasing revolutionary leaps forward in business. Below, you'll find seven simple strategies that can help you fast-track growth and innovation, and give your organization all the capabilities it needs to stay ahead of the curve.
1. Listen to your customers.
Research demonstrates that customers are the single best, most reliable source where organizations looking to future-proof themselves can routinely turn to discover winning new ideas. Ironically though, not many businesses today have formal solutions in place for actively tracking the feedback that shoppers are sending, let alone translating it into actionable strategy. Tools such as polls, surveys, questionnaires, market research and social media monitoring software (for tracking popular topics and conversational trends) can all help you surface invaluable insights here.
But if you truly want to successfully mine today's most consistent source of business ideas for great concepts, including clever and cost-effective ways to stay relevant? It also pays to embrace the concept of “open innovation," or regularly putting out calls for help to partners, suppliers and even the general public. In effect, the more you invite input from outside sources of every kind, the more you can radically multiply the amount of insights and resources available to you—and the speed at which you can solve any challenge.
2. Encourage employees to speak up.
As those closest to customers on a running basis, frontline workers of every kind (e.g. sales reps, customer service specialists, community managers, etc.) are often an organization's most informed audience. Therefore, if you want to future-proof your business, it's also vital to find ways to tap into their insights at every turn.
If you want to lead with creativity and innovation as a business, you've got to also make a point to teach your workforce that plans and products don't have to be flawless before you decide to put them in play.
Noting this, it's no surprise that today's most successful businesses don't just make a point to put platforms and programs in place that facilitate teamwork and collaboration, and give workers a greater voice in making decisions, across the board. They also actively work to promote cultures of trust and respect in which everyone is encouraged to speak up and share their input, and reward contributors for bringing both potential opportunities and challenges to the organization's attention. Likewise, to build and maintain competitive advantage, these firms consistently provide their people with the systems and support that they need to quickly translate ideas into action—and make leadership a concept that scales at every level.
3. Iterate, don't reinvent.
Innovation isn't always about coming up with game-changing concepts. In fact, simple shifts in communications or operations strategy can be every bit as successful at helping you create huge windfalls for your business. Ask yourself: How could you reuse existing resources, capabilities or solutions in new and exciting ways—or repackage them to appeal to new audiences? What could your organization do in a single step that's currently taking it several steps to perform—or where could technology help you automate or skip these steps entirely? In essence, innovation (like future-proofing) is largely a matter of perspective, and process of constant reimagining and reinvention. The more frequently you make a point to challenge yourself and your people to think differently, the more innovative (and, ultimately, future-proof) you'll be.
4. See tomorrow today.
Don't just focus on competing with rivals' present-day offerings. Also consider where the future is heading, the way in which end-users' needs are constantly changing, and how you can put solutions in place today that tomorrow's customers will demand. To help bridge the gap from here to there strategically, provide workers with the freedom to take lots of small, cost-productive risks that have the potential to pay off for the business from a long-term perspective, learning as they go.
Similarly, on an organizational level, make it a priority to play a portfolio of new strategic ventures at all times, optimizing and course-correcting as you gather and learn from market feedback along the way. Remember, not every new venture will pan out. But just by pursuing this process of constant evolution, you'll help actively grow your business's capabilities and insights, and improve its ability to shift with changing markets over time.
5. Challenge every assumption.
Ironically, if you're still doing things the way they've “always been done" on the job, it pays to remind yourself—as fast as today's business world changes and evolves, odds are that they are no longer the best way to still be doing them. Keeping in mind that competitors are always looking for ways to do things better, faster and cheaper, it's crucial to routinely challenge your people to look for ways to proactively disrupt yourself before you get disrupted by other parties. That's why it's important to always be experimenting with new innovations and solutions, as above, especially while things are going well, and you can most afford to take risks. The more you make a point to actively push yourself to try new approaches or strategies, and challenge longstanding assumptions, the more future-proof your business (and its ideas) will ultimately be.
6. Think fast.
Most businesses today can go from concept to delivery of new products, services and solutions in less than 90 days. In fact, less than 30 days from idea to execution is more common than not. Having trouble doing the same? It helps to embrace the idea of a minimum viable product (MVP) mindset—building just as much of a solution as you need to roll it out and commence real-world trials.
As a simple exercise, try inviting your staff to participate in hackathon events (freestyle design competitions) in which individuals of every background and experience level are challenged to come up with working product prototypes in a single weekend. Alternately, you could run an innovation contest over the course of 4-6 weeks and invite workers to share their ideas, give colleagues feedback and vote for which projects will be given a trial run. Put simply, it's easy to fast-track innovation when you add a few productive constraints.
7. Embrace imperfection.
As you can see, flexibility is the essence of future-proofing, and creating future-proof business ideas. However, as important as it is to challenge every assumption and learn as you go, it's also important to recognize that making mistakes is the single biggest fear in the workplace today. Keeping this in mind, if you want to lead with creativity and innovation as a business, you've got to also make a point to teach your workforce that plans and products don't have to be flawless before you decide to put them in play. That's because the idea that a strategy has to be “perfect" before we give it a trial run often stops us from moving forward as individuals and enterprises. In fact, the truth is that a plan or product that's “good enough" can often be the start of something great. Working towards “good enough" forces us to focus our time and efforts and work to a fixed deadline, which allows us to gain real-world feedback faster and ask smarter questions sooner.
Ultimately, building a future-proofed business, and determining how to stay relevant, isn't about having all the answers up front. Rather, it's about being more open-minded and resilient, and doing lots of planning—as well as remaining self-aware enough to know when to rip up or rewrite the plan as you go.
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