Just about every business out there needs to be thinking of ways to innovate to come up with the proverbial “next big idea.” But what exactly is innovation? And how do you, as a small business owner, look for it, create it or even establish the kind of organizational culture that fosters it?
Clay Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor and author of The Innovator's Dilemma, originally coined the phrase “disruptive innovation” back in 1995. While it can mean different things to different people, Scott D. Anthony, who heads Asian operations for Innosight, a global strategic innovation consulting and investment firm founded by Christensen, uses the following definition:
Disruptive innovation is something that transforms existing markets or creates new ones by making something simple, affordable, accessible or convenient.
Disruptive Innovation in the Real World
Familiar examples of disruptive innovations might be the iPhone, Facebook or the light bulb—products and services that changed how we interact with the world around us. But the mistake most business owners make, says Anthony, is that they believe it’s only the Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerbergs and Thomas Edisons of the world who are capable of creating disruptive innovation.
“The number one barrier to innovation is that people view it in a mythical way,” Anthony says.
Anthony, who is based in Singapore, has written his own book on the subject, titled The Little Black Book of Innovation. The book details a 28-day plan any business can implement to drive innovation.
“The reality is that innovation is something that can be done by anyone," Anthony says. "But it takes hard work, practice and failure. The best innovations come from trial and error and not out of thin air like most people tend to think.”
Lessons for Small Businesses
Anthony adds that there is also a belief that it’s only large companies that can afford to invest in innovation. He says that large companies understand the need to innovate because it’s a strategy to guard against threats. But just as important for small businesses is the focus on innovation because it can energize a company and create tremendous opportunities for growth.
In terms of how to prepare your small business for disruptive innovation, Anthony says there are two key lessons:
1. The best ideas occur at intersections between disciplines. That can mean mixing up sales people with engineers or marketers with HR people. For example, the beauty of Apple’s products emerges from the intersection of liberal arts and technology.
2. Innovators find ways to interact. This applies to people both inside and outside of the company’s walls as a way to uncover new opportunities or to identify ideas your company could copy and improve upon. “Pablo Picasso once said, ‘Good artists copy; great artists steal,’” Anthony says.
When Anthony works with small businesses attempting to weave more innovation into their cultural DNA, he also points to a few key lessons he borrowed from his personal Mt. Rushmore of innovative thinkers: A.G. Lafley, former CEO of Procter & Gamble; famed inventor Thomas Edison; boxer Mike Tyson; and Anthony's grandfather, Robert Anthony Sr.
A.G. Lafley. Lafley's company, P&G, created breakthrough products like Swiffer and Febreze. According to Anthony, “The guidance he provides is to take a market-first perspective, which means adopting the mindset and the mantra that the consumer is boss. No matter what size company you have, you need to understand your market and look through the eyes of your consumer in order to innovate.”
Thomas Edison. Edison actually improved upon a 50-year-old idea when he created the light bulb: “It was Edison who said that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. I see people who get paralyzed because they think they don’t have the perfect idea. But there really is no such thing. The greatest ideas come from experimentation and hard work.”
Mike Tyson. Anthony says of the former heavyweight champion: “Tyson had this great line where he said everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face. People tend to think that innovation is an analytic or academic exercise. It’s not. There is no perfect plan. In order to innovate, you have to get out there and try things.”
Robert Anthony Sr. The prolific author and teacher is a member of the Accounting Hall of Fame. Anthony praises his progenitor: “My grandfather taught me a key life lesson when I was 7. He had me read his book, The Essentials of Accounting, where I first learned about the dual-aspect concept, which states that every credit has a debit. This has stuck with me for 30 years and applies to innovation because you need to recognize that things that make you good or strong also make you weak in some way. If you want to innovate, therefore, you need to think and act in different ways.”
According to Anthony, the key for any company to create disruptive innovation is to stop thinking and start doing.
“It’s not rocket science,” he says. “Innovation is a learned skill or discipline that can be mastered. The first step is to get over that fear because anyone can do this.”
Which innovative thinkers have inspired you?