In business, as in life, it's important to keep things new. For small businesses, this means regularly introducing new products and revamping old ones to keep up with consumer taste and demand.
The trick, however, is knowing when and how to innovate. In a report for the innovation consulting company Strategos called "Metrics for Innovation: Guidelines for Developing a Customized Suite of Innovation Metrics," authors Amy Muller, Liisa Välikangas and Paul Merlyn argue that many businesses have difficulty with "sustained innovation." They might introduce new products regularly, but they don't have a culture of innovation that supports creative thinking and product development over the long haul.
When to Innovate?
In other words, the short answer to when to innovate is all the time. Businesses need to have a process in place that allows them to continually evaluate current products and come up with new ideas. This means talking with customers, soliciting feedback, reading comments about your products on social media sites, evaluating sales and otherwise gauging and assessing customer opinion and demand. It might also mean having idea meetings, where you, developers and your employees toss around ideas and talk about what's working and what's not. However it happens, communication between you and your employees is key to developing new products. Your receptionist or sales staff, after all, has unique insights into what customers want, and it's always a good idea to pay attention to the perceptions of those on the front lines.
Time to Think
Another way to develop a culture of innovation is to give employees time to think, daydream, research and experiment. Try giving them time each week to work on projects that interests them—an hour, a day or whatever you think your business can afford.
It's a model that's been effective for some large corporations, and it can be adapted by small businesses, as well. 3M, for instance, has over several decades encouraged its employees to invent and experiment on the job, as long as the results of such experimentation can be used by the others in the company. In 1968, 3M chemist Spencer Silver used the creative space granted by his company to invent a reusable, pressure-sensitive adhesive. Under 3M's "permitted bootlegging" policy, his colleague, Art Fry, used this adhesive to invent a product that would eventually become Post-It Notes. This product might never have been invented if it weren't for 3M's culture of innovation and the communication it facilitated between colleagues.
Though wineries, gift shops, and caterers might not have the resources of 3M, they can learn from the compnay's success. Giving employees the chance to evaluate products, think creatively, experiment and communicate with each other is a recipe for successful and sustained innovation. Innovation, after all, needs to be an ongoing process—something nurtured and encouraged by a business from the ground up.
The culture of innovation works both for creating new products and updating old ones. Review existing products regularly, encouraging employees to experiment, share and communicate. It's a magical formula that allows employees to come up with good ideas for how to improve and revamp your existing products. Your business will flourish as a result.
Create a culture of sustained innovation, and you just might find it will yield surprising results.
Vivian Wagner is a freelance writer in New Concord, Ohio. Vivian blogs via Contently.com.