When times are tough — and they often are for small and medium-sized businesses — the most innovative thing you can do is figure out a way to keep the operation running at full strength from one day to the next.
Ideally, however, the concept of innovation should offer SMBs the same thing it does to large organizations: new ways of working, serving customers and ultimately growing the business.
One of the big differences in the way big companies approach this, of course, is by making innovation a defined role. In a recent blog post, however, management consultant, George Bradt suggests that’s not necessarily the approach you should take:
If one person is in charge of innovation, everyone else is not. And they must be. Anyone not innovating is falling behind those that are. Darwin taught us that that is a bad thing. So: No distinctions between scientific, artistic and interpersonal leaders. Everyone is responsible for innovating, creating and leading.
If that’s the case, how should SMBs — where people are already more likely to be wearing multiple hats — help their team share the challenge of innovation?
Define Innovation As Clearly As Your Mission Statement
Even in the smallest companies, there’s often a clear sense of purpose, even if it’s just to offer the best products and customer service in your particular segment. “Innovation,” on the other hand, can seem like fuzzy concept.
The Conference Board of Canada offers a great way to sum up innovation that companies of any size can disseminate: “ideas to produce new or improved strategies, capabilities, products, services, or processes.” An even more layman’s approach might be “ideas that make what the company does work better,” whether it’s internal processes, customer-facing things or a mixture of the two. Think about kick-starting your group approach to innovation by discussing what it collectively means to the team and work from there.
Tie Innovation To KPIs
Even if you don’t use formal key performance indicators, most businesses spend at least some time thinking about how various staff contribute to the firm’s overall objectives, whether it’s getting more customers, selling more into existing customers or reducing the time it takes to deal with customer support issues.
Of course, you always want to recognize and reward those who follow the established protocol to get these things done. The best managers, however, go the next step by analyzing how their top performers manage to shine, especially if they see workarounds or approaches that make them more competitive. Even if you’re only offering the occasional pizza lunch to celebrate team successes, use these opportunities to recognize actions that not only represent good practices, but innovation within those practices. It may inspire others do pursue some innovation of their own.
Encourage Innovation Through Experimentation
It might be tempting to see innovation as something you launch through some structured brainstorming process — like taking the entire away to an expensive resort for the weekend the way some of the largest firms do. A recent article on the Huffington Post, however, suggests innovation is far more likely to happen when people try something in the heat of the moment, rather than through thought-out deliberation:
“Creative minds are constantly moving, and that's what triggers innovation,” the post said. “It's important to remember that stagnancy does nothing to solve problems; it allows them to grow and develop into bigger issues that take even more work to solve.”
This may be why organizations that empower their staff with mobile technologies on tablets and smartphones often seem among the most innovative. By having increased access to data wherever they go, those companies have a greater ability to work through customer problems when they are actually sitting in front of those customers, rather than waiting until they com back to the office for a weekly staff meeting.
Pay Attention To Unexpected Customer Frustrations
SMBs and large companies all try to minimize complaints from their customers after the sale, for obvious reasons. When customers mention something that has nothing to do with your firm’s particular products and services, therefore, the reaction tends to be bewilderment or at best a sympathetic shrug.
A great web site called Innovation Excellence suggests companies would be far better to not only listen carefully to customers’ unmet needs, but to use them as a foundation for their next breakthrough idea.
“If you look at some of the most successful entrepreneurs of this generation, you will notice that all of them started with a problem that all of us faced but did not see it as a potential for value creation,” the site says, citing GoPro’s outdoor cameras and Etsy’s online marketplace for artisans as just two examples.
Innovate Alongside Your Customers
SMBs aren’t the only ones striving to be more innovative, of course. Their customers are often looking for ideas that create dynamic change in their own environments, or across their sector as a whole. If they only see you as a supplier of products or services, you’re not likely to get close to that activity. If, however, your use of marketing automation, CRM and analytics demonstrates a deeper insight into their needs, they may be more likely to discuss higher-level objectives where you can contribute in new ways. If a customer sees you as a cog in its innovation engine, they are more likely to be your customer for life.
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