Peter F. Drucker is legendary for his insightful work and writing about business. I started reading Drucker's work in order to become a better, more educated small-business writer. I kept reading Drucker because I found myself applying his advice to my own small business.
Here's a little of what he has to say about innovation.
Innovation is not so much about genius as it is about a system and some sweat. This is bad news if you're a genius but great news for the rest of us. I can't really count on flashes of inspiration or moments of genius to occur with any regularity, or even at all. I can, however, count on bills and deadlines. They come with great regularity.
To be innovative in my business, then, is a possibility—just as it's possible for you (and your employees) to be innovative in your business. That's the good news. The other half of the good news is that it's not necessarily easy. You did catch that part about sweat, right?
As Drucker says, "purposeful innovation resulting from analysis, system and hard work is all that can be discussed and presented as the practice of innovation. But this is all that need be presented since it surely covers at least 90 percent of all effective innovations.”
Innovation, then, is not limited to those with the genius factor or those who have figured out how to bribe the Muse. It's possible with some hard work. But possible doesn't mean necessary.
The next question I had was one you might have as well: is innovation important for my small business?
Innovation isn't important unless you want your business to survive. "All economic activity is by definition 'high-risk.' And defending yesterday—that is, not innovating—is far more risky than making tomorrow," Drucker says.
Companies that don't innovate stagnate. And stagnant companies are dying companies. Change is not part of life; it is life, and that's just as true in business as in anything else.
Unfortunately, that means that just as we get comfortable and start to feel like we're on top of our game, we need to change. We need to innovate. We need to see what's happening and happen with it—or, better yet—happen just a little bit before.
"The truly important events on the outside are not the trends," Drucker says, "They are changes in the trends. These determine ultimately success or failure of an organization and its efforts."
For me and my business, the key is to remain objective enough to see beyond the trends. I may be making my living from a trend or two, but trends are like waves in that they build momentum, build bulk, peak, and then dissipate, to be followed by the next wave. You have to be ready for the next wave, not stuck in the sand trying to save the old one.
Innovation will die unless you make it live. "It is not size that is an impediment to entrepreneurship and innovation; it is the existing operation itself, and especially the existing successful operation,” Drucker writes.
There are many hurdles to even attempting a new idea in a small business. The first hurdle is time. When was the last time you sat down at your desk and thought, “Oh, look at that, I've got nothing to do for the next two hours or so, I'll just take a look at all these new ideas and decide on a couple to try"?
The second hurdle is money. You've only got so much. Maybe not enough. Maybe barely enough. Certainly not an excess that makes you want to fling it wantonly at one new idea after another.
"The best, and perhaps the only, way to avoid killing off the new by sheer neglect is to set up the innovative project from the start as a separate business," Drucker says.
To innovate, I start with something small, such as a new idea, a new method, a new product or a new service (a single item, not a whole bundle). And then I give it just a little space, a tiny little budget. There's nothing wrong with that; in fact, according to Drucker, an effective innovation "has to be simple and it has to be focused. It should do only one thing; otherwise, it confuses."
I think of innovations in my business as experimental sidelines. They don't have to work; they don't have to turn a profit; they just have to be out there, a little bit, just enough to see what might happen.
But that experimental sideline won't exist unless I give it the space and permission to exist.
I could invest in my business in a lot of ways: new hardware, new office chair, more training or a new employee. Hardware will get old, the office chair will get squeaky, the training may or may not be effective, and the employee is going home at the end of the day. But those tiny innovations—those experimental sidelines —one of those could turn out to be the future of my business.
What are you doing to build the future of your business? What's a single idea that could become a tiny innovation in your small business?
Annie Mueller writes about all aspects of productivity in life and at work. Her work can be seen at numerous online publications. She blogs at AnnieMueller.com. Find her on twitter: @anniemueller.
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