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Innovator’s Cookbook, a book by bestselling author and Internet pioneer Steven Johnson, serves up a fast-paced read on innovation—the essential ingredient in many recipes for small business success. The “starter course” is Johnson’s introduction reflecting on his own entrepreneurial experience. He then delivers a compilation of well-edited peer essays before concluding with “Innovation in Action,” highlighting his conversations with some of today’s most noteworthy innovators. Innovator’s Cookbook might just inspire readers to cook up some ingenuity of their own.
We recently talked with Johnson about what innovation means to small business owners in particular.
The first essay that appears in your book is "The Discipline of Innovation" by Peter Drucker, who writes: "Effective innovations start small. They are not grandiose." Would you agree that innovation is especially important to—and evident in—the small business world?
Certainly when we are talking about startup culture, small businesses are the engine of innovation in our culture. Small businesses lack the bureaucratic sclerosis that keeps so many large firms from innovating. They can push in new directions without getting approval from multiple departments, and they can seize new opportunities when they arise.
Richard Florida talks about "a profound new force in the economy and life of America" in his essay (and book by the same title), The Rise of the Creative Class. He defines the creative class as "a fast-growing, highly educated, and well-paid segment of the workforce on whose efforts corporate profits and economic growth increasingly depend…[Members of the creative class] share a common ethos that values creativity, individuality, difference, and merit." How are small businesses potentially more attractive than large corporations as workplaces for the creative class?
Creative Class members will work for a giant multinational corporation under the right circumstances, but they'd much rather work for a quirkier, smaller firm—just as they'd rather shop in a boutique than buy from Target. So small businesses need to reaffirm that quality of being unique and self-defining, and not just another global brand.
You share this quote from music producer Brian Eno: "One of the things that a producer can do is to think of ways to get people out of their habits." Eno will actually have musicians swap instruments in the studio to energize a recording session. What might the outcome of a similar strategy be within a small business?
Even small businesses have different departments or specialties within them. There is quite a bit of diversity of expertise even in a company with 50 employees; so companies need to figure out ways to exchange experience and best practices across those fields of expertise, just as Eno likes to shake up bands in the studio. Make sure the marketing people are talking to the finance team and the engineers are talking to the salespeople. Don't just let people get locked inside their silos.
In your conversation with IDEO’s Tom Kelley, you asked him how space can be used to encourage innovative thinking. He said that he thinks corporate America just wants everyone to have "a desk, a chair, and a wastebasket," but he believes that "space can be strategic, that if you get the space right, it can affect the attitude and performance of the people on the team.” What are you seeing in successful work environments today that excites you?
I'm very much enamored of the “project-based” spatial design Kelley talked about, which replaces sterile conference rooms. So you give [each group] a dedicated room devoted to its core project. Unlike a traditional conference room where the whiteboard gets erased after every meeting, the dedicated project space is populated by months of material on all the walls—sketches, brainstorms, prototypes, jokes and pictures. You walk into the room, and the conversation you've been having for the past year starts up right where it left off, and there's a clear trace of ideas from past conversations that might easily have been forgotten.
Small business owners can get so wrapped up in the constant demands of their jobs. What's an easy way for them to keep tabs on innovations in their industry and beyond? (In addition to reading your book, of course!)
I use Twitter as a reading guide every single day—not to find out what people are having for breakfast, but to follow the links they share to interesting articles or blog posts or videos they've just discovered. If you follow an interesting and eclectic group of people, those daily links are an invaluable source of new ideas and inspiration.
Heidi Pearson is a Twin Cities-based writer, editor and stylist whose work has appeared in varied print and digital publications covering everything from finance and technology to lifestyle, home and garden.
Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of FedEx.
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