Innovation. It’s one of those words that gets tossed around a lot. Consultants may often claim businesses must “innovate or die.” While that sounds a bit extreme, the truth is, innovation isn’t an option. Nor is it simply enough to say you want to innovate; you should foster a culture of innovation on your team, no matter how big or small it may be.
For our business, fostering an innovative culture includes forming a dedicated innovation team. We also build innovation into our company’s DNA, and every employee is chartered with, and rewarded for, driving innovation. We’re so committed to it that we created the Small Business InnoLoft, where a rotation of small businesses spend four months with us innovating, experimenting and learning how to take their business to the next level.
But where do you start? How do you know the difference between an idea that’s truly innovative and one that likely won’t fly?
The Three "I"s
It starts with three “I” words that can help take your small business to the next level: inspiration, imagination and insight. Alone, they’re powerful; when fused together, they’re what can make the difference between a company that stands out and one that strikes out.
Sources of Inspiration
One of the biggest misconceptions about inspiration is that it’s something which only comes from within. While nobody will deny how impactful those "aha" moments can be, successful small-business owners don’t wait for inspiration to come to them. Instead, they go after it. Inspiration can come from anywhere, and once you train yourself to be on the lookout for it, you can uncover it everywhere you go.
Three great sources of inspiration are the news, the world around you and your competition.
To stay current on news and trends, especially changes within your industry, you can set up Google alerts. When you track current events and combine it with your expertise, you may start to generate fresh ideas.
When you’re out and about or online, take a closer look at the businesses and activities that attract your attention and wallet. What’s different about the design and layout of their website or stores, their approach to customer service and other differentiators that keep you coming back for more?
Also, by keeping a curious eye on the competition, you can’t help but come up with ways to build a better mousetrap. As Picasso once said, “Good artists copy; great artists steal.” What this really means in the context of innovation is that when you come across something that you admire and deem innovative, take note. You’re not out to copy it. Instead, use it for inspiration and then add your own touches and expertise to improve upon it.
Jumpstarting Your Imagination
Now that you’re feeling inspired, let’s unleash your imagination. As a reminder, every brainstorming session should start with the understanding that no idea is too out there. Let the ideas flow and jot down every single one, regardless of how farfetched it might sound. Those ideas may spark more ideas, and from there you can pick the best ones to execute.
If you’re having a hard time getting the creativity juices to flow, here are two ways to rev your imagination engine:
- Try using your non-dominant hand for everyday activities such as brushing your teeth, cooking a meal or buttoning your shirt. When you change things up using your non-dominant hand, your brain responds by bringing your non-dominant hemisphere into action. When both hemispheres, the one you typically use and the one that’s non-dominant, are activated, this may help to unleash creativity.
- Embrace distractions. Too often, we’re told to focus and execute, and while that’s a big part of your job, there’s something to be said for welcoming distractions. When you step away from the urgency to come up with the “next great idea,” you can recharge. It’s usually during this relaxed down time that some of the best ideas may come to you. In fact, a recent study by Baylor University published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that frequent, shorter breaks throughout the workday can help you recharge.
Gathering Valuable Insight
At this point, you'll likely be overflowing with innovative ideas. But before you invest time and money in bringing those ideas forward, you may need insight from trusted customers and experts.
To get it from customers, you can go the traditional route of surveys and directly ask them for feedback about their experiences. Equally important is the insight you can get from really listening to their questions and paying attention to what they’re not saying.
Specifically, consider why a customer is asking a particular question. When a customer asks the local hardware store owner about bulk pricing on plywood, the question should be “what are you trying to build?” as opposed to “what’s your budget?”
To read between the lines of what customers aren’t saying, take a pulse on whether they’re engaging with you in person and online. Notice if there’s been an increase or decrease in online reviews, new subscribers to your newsletter and people sharing your content. Analyzing the way customers respond and react can also turn the wheels of innovation.
While customer insights are important, consider rounding out their feedback with a group of trusted advisors and mentors. Depending on where you want to take your business, this council could be made up of local small-business owners and proven entrepreneurs. It could also take the form of participating in a small-business incubator or accelerator.
Consider tapping those trusted advisors and a few longstanding customers when you’re ready to thoroughly test an innovative new concept. The process, known as a design sprint, can propel noteworthy ideas into business actions and has been used successfully by our product team many times.
Specifically, a design sprint is a five-step process for solving business problems through design and prototyping.
It begins with the “Define" stage, when you lay out all the information about the issue or idea and identify what knowledge gaps exist. In the second phase of “Understanding the Problem,” you pull together newfound knowledge, perhaps from customer interviews or recent data, to see if new conclusions can be drawn. Next comes the “Ideation” phase, when the team comes up with all the possible solutions. Armed with lots of options, you move into the “Build” phase, when you focus on building out your best two options. Now you’re ready for the fifth and final phase, "Testing the Idea" on real users. This is where you learn whether the concept needs to be tweaked or scrapped.
Most important in the innovation process can be giving yourself permission to fail. Recognize that not every idea will be a home run, but you’re less likely to swing and miss if you take a methodical approach to innovation, analyzing the world around you, gathering feedback from customers and experts, and embracing two more “I” words: iteration and continuous improvement.
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