Small Business Innovation Lessons From 3 Big Companies

Google, GE and DreamWorks set valuable examples in innovation that businesses of any size can learn from.
CEO, Small Business Trends LLC
April 09, 2012

What can small business learn from big business when it comes to innovation? Plenty, if the big businesses are recognized innovative giants. The New York Times recently took a look at how Google, GE and DreamWorks encourage innovation. Here are some valuable lessons for businesses of any size.

Encourage “intrapreneurs.” At Google, individual entrepreneurs within the company are encouraged to follow their passion. It’s well known how Google gives its engineers “20 percent time” which they can spend working on projects unrelated to their jobs, as long as they’re pursuing a passion. Of course, many of these projects ultimately develop into new product offerings for Google, even though they're not required to.

Set up a system. Innovation doesn’t just happen. All three of these companies systematically pursue innovation by creating structures to not only spur new ideas, but to follow through and execute on them.

Recruit entrepreneurs. At Google, this idea is taken literally: Many of the company’s key employees formerly started businesses of their own. DreamWorks encourages their employees to think of themselves as artists, and anyone who’s worked with artists knows they’re typically independent, entrepreneurial spirits. GE launched an “ecomagination challenge” in 2010, recruiting startups and inventors to come up with ideas for products and services related to the "smart" electric grid.

Provide feedback. There’s nothing more soul-crushing for an employee than putting his or her full effort into an idea or project only to receive minimal feedback. At DreamWorks, feedback is an essential part of the innovation system. After every project, the team assesses what worked and what didn't. Without feedback, workers lack direction going forward, and their inspiration and innovation will dry up.

Collaborate. Working together–with co-workers, customers and partners–is a crucial step for all three of these companies to innovate successfully. At GE, “inclusiveness” is key: The company recognizes that diverse teams can be more innovative because they bring different experiences to bear, and that each person’s input is needed to truly innovate. At Google, this extends to “sharing everything” so that different viewpoints can be expressed, as veteran employee Susan Wojcicki puts it in “The 8 Pillars of Innovation.”

Learn what customers want. GE founder Thomas Edison once said, “I find out what the world needs, then I proceed to invent it.” The company still runs its business by this approach. Social media tools today make it easier than ever to learn what your customers are wishing for—so all you have to do is give it to them.

Think big. All innovative businesses encourage employees to think beyond their comfort zones. At GE, prospective employees are actually evaluated on how comfortable they are with taking risks.

Don’t fear failure. The corollary to encouraging risk is that you’ll inevitably experience failure. How you respond is crucial to whether your company successfully innovates, or stays in second place. As a DreamWorks technology director puts it, “Missing the mark once, twice or even 1,000 times doesn't mean you've failed. Part of the process means embracing failure while refusing to accept it as an end.” Instead of punishing failure, accept it as an inevitable part of the innovation process.

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