The Upside-Down Approach to Innovation

Before you try inventing something new, try clearing your company of all the old clutter that inhibits clear thinking.
July 13, 2012

Recently a friend of mine downsized and moved from a big five-bedroom house to a smaller one. One of the surprises of the move, she told me, was how easy it suddenly became to get rid off all the junk that was cluttering her old house’s many closets, storage spaces and the garage. Even though she had carefully stored these items for years, when faced with the thought of packing, shipping and unpacking them, they suddenly became a lot less essential. Now, even though she has much less room in her new house, it somehow feels more spacious and freeing.

Something similar can happen with innovation in our businesses. We typically think of innovation as creating something new. We hold brainstorming meetings to come up with dozens of new ideas, add new products and services to our existing offerings, and ponder what new markets to expand into.

But what if we approached innovation from the opposite direction—by getting rid of what isn’t working, before we try to come up with something that works? By paring down instead of trying to add? By tossing the old before bringing in the new? Here are three steps to approaching innovation from this angle.

1. Examine processes. What systems and procedures in your business are outdated and useless? You probably have dozens of steps employees take that no longer mean anything but are simply “the way we’ve always done it.” Whether it’s writing down order numbers on paper or double-taping every box you ship out, get your team together to consider which processes are really necessary and which could be streamlined or eliminated altogether.

2. Examine products and services. Are some of your business’ products or services no longer pulling their weight? Even if they’re bringing in a profit, is it enough to justify their existence? Do the products or services fit with the rest of your offerings and the trajectory of your business, or are they keeping you tied to an old, outdated market you’ve moved beyond? Could resources (time, money, employees) currently dedicated to these products or services be better used elsewhere—like to ramp up on more promising and profitable products or services?

3. Examine employees. No small business can afford to carry dead weight in today’s economy. Are your employees helping or hurting your business? Is every person in the best job for their skills, their interests and your needs? If not, this doesn’t necessarily mean firing or layoffs—it could simply mean rejiggering job descriptions, lateral moves or more training to get existing employees up to speed. But if some square pegs just won’t fit into the round hole, it might be time for them to go.

Like cleaning out your garage and tossing unused belongings, jettisoning old processes or products can give your business a whole new start. You’ll be surprised how much space you suddenly find in your mind, and how free you and your team will feel to create something new without all that clutter clogging up your brain.

Anita Campbell is Editor and Founder of Small Business Trends, LLC, which manages online communities touching over 300,000 small business owners and managers each month. Her flagship website is the award-winning Small Business Trends.

Photo credit: Thinkstock