No matter what activity you're pursuing, you have to continually evolve or you won't make any progress. This is especially true when it comes to business—you have to keep transforming and innovating, staying fresh and up to date. You often have to zag while everyone else zigs.
So how can you keep up with the fast-churning world of business in order to remain viable and needed? Some of the most successful people in the world share their secrets to blocking out the noise and continuously innovating below.
Change Your Role, Even If You're the Boss
Barbara Bates, CEO of public relations agency Eastwick
“I can honestly look back at my career and pinpoint several times when I was stale—not necessarily just phoning it in, but definitely not keeping myself sharp. My business suffered because of it," Bates says in an interview with OPEN Forum. We weren’t staying current and needed a shot in the arm to get back to our innovative ways. I'd had the same job for almost 20 years and needed a ‘new job’ within my agency to spark my thinking."
So Bates decided to hire someone whose main focus would be the day-to-day operations of her business, which gave her the time she needed to concentrate on expanding into new markets.
Push Past the Point of Exhaustion
Robert Greene, author of The 48 Laws of Power
Greene, an expert on strategy, power and seduction, has said that innovation comes when you’re able to push past the point of exhaustion and desperation. If you don’t push past that point, he says, you'll experience burnout.
“There's a point here, a fine line between finding challenges for yourself, moving on when you need to move and giving up because you're not able to push past that point of frustration … it’s a very slender line,” Greene says in an interview with online magazine NextShark.
Focus on Solving Core Customer Problems
Bob Wells, senior vice president at Sherwin-Williams
According to Wells, the secret to innovating is to not focus on it. Instead, focus on “knowing your customer’s problems and sticking to solving them.”
“[Sherwin-Williams has] always looked at business more like dating than war,” Wells explains in an article in the Harvard Business Review. “It’s a theme that runs through our 140-year company history. In war, you’re focused on beating the competition. In dating, you’re focused on strengthening a relationship. That difference of perspective has a million knock-on effects for how decisions get made.”
Whatever innovation does unfold, Wells said, you also need to stick with it. In the article, Wells explains how Sherwin-Williams’ stock price has quadrupled in the past five years. But the changes that led to that started 25 years ago when the company was conducting customer research.
It realized that contractors were making their paint-buying decisions based on a store's proximity to their job site, not to the brand of paint. So Sherwin-Williams decided to roll out more stores and snatch up more real estate. (This was before the Starbucks-on-every-corner phenomenon.) However, their competitors quickly realized what was happening and followed suit. It wasn’t until the 2009 recession when Sherwin-Williams’ competitors began closing their stores to cut costs that their long-term plans began to bear serious fruit. Instead of closing stores, Sherwin-Williams did the opposite, opening more locations because they understood what their customers needed. Revenue growth has soared since then.
Never Accept Things the Way They Are
Bismarck Lepe, CEO of Wizeline, a product management and innovation company
“As for how I innovate, one should never accept that things are the way they are because it's the optimal way of doing things,” Lepe tells OPEN Forum. “Everything can, and should, be challenged—and when you're right, that's where there's big opportunity.”
Lepe has never accepted the status quo. His parents immigrated to California from Mexico, worked in the fields, and still managed to send him and his brother to Stanford University. The Lepe brothers both joined Google and later went on to start their own companies.
“I’m a firm believer in dreaming big and reaching big,” he says. “I also care about the people who work for me and trust them to help with the outcome.”
Create Different Channels for Ideas
Laszlo Bock, senior vice president of people operations at Google
Bock believes that the secret to innovating is empowering employees and providing multiple channels for ideas to form.
“We try to have as many channels for expression as we can, recognizing that different people, and different ideas, will percolate up in different ways,” Bock says in an interview with Forbes. “Personally, I believe this culture is an insight about the human condition. People look for meaning in their work. People want to know what’s happening in their environment. People want to have some ability to shape that environment.”
Delve Into a New Field
Robert Greene, author of The 48 Laws of Power
Your mind can get "kind of stale" when you continue to follow conventions you've learned along the way in your field, says Greene, an expert on strategy, power and seduction. To loosen up the rigidity that happens when you get older, Greene suggests exercising your brain. How do you do this? Develop an interest in a particular kind of science or literature. Whatever the interest is, it can't be directly related to what you do.
"You need outside sources of information," he explains to OPEN. "You need to stop looking at the same web sites. Stop listening to the same people. Stop reading the same journals. Open the windows and let some fresh air in. In almost all fields, the greatest innovators are people who are outside the field. They were trained in something else so they're not held by all these conventions and dogmas."
As an example, the author points to Google, which was started by two founders who had no background in business. Sergey Brin and Larry Page were able to be so unique, says Greene, because they were outsiders. That outside perspective is what allowed them to create the creative company Google is today.
Sometimes the simple act of switching up your environment and getting out of your office and moving is all you need to inspire fresh thoughts.
“My big way to tune out everything else is that I need to move,” Rae says in an interview with Fast Company, where she was also named one of the Most Creative People in 2013. “I need things to move very fast so I can think. So I ride my bike, go on a run, go in a car by myself and drive for hours.
“I use a tape recorder to tape my thoughts," she adds. "Some people are naturally writers—I’m naturally a talker. In these moments, I just let things flow. I’ve got to get alone and moving.”
The movers and shakers above prove that innovation can be sparked in any number of ways. So whether you need to change your business responsibilities, refuse to accept the status quo, solve your customers' core problems or just take a daily walking break, learning to foster innovation in yourself and your company may just be a step away.
Read more articles on innovation.
Photo: Getty Images