As I “grew up” in business in big companies, including IBM, I always wondered why the real innovations seemed to come from startups, while we had more resources and more experience.
For example, IBM was the industry leader in mainframe computers for business, and we knew thousands of ways they could be linearly enhanced for business applications. Yet we never even dreamed of a new potential for personal use of computers, until startups like Apple and Microsoft stepped into the fray. We didn’t notice as technology advances had opened a whole new market.
Now, as a business advisor to large companies, as well as small ones, my objective is to foster those activities and ways of thinking that broaden the potential for high creativity and recognizing new market opportunities, before resource constraints are applied.
If you see yourself or your company ignoring any of these, now is the time to take action:
1. Invest in a new market, as well as new features.
I find that non-startups spend most of their resources linearly enhancing existing products, rather than monitoring change in the marketplace and catching the next wave. Employee and customer input are good for fixing bugs, but not good leading indicators. Look outside for future trends and potential.
2. Use brainstorming for more creative solutions.
Effective brainstorming is all about defining and executing a process for creative ideas to create a big impact. Most mature companies have unfortunately replaced it long ago with product management groups to fix problems. You can make it work right with short, open-ended sessions, and a leader.
3. Don’t wait for innovation ideas from top management.
Front-line people who deal directly with the market are much more likely to see needed changes, and they need to be rewarded for speaking up, rather than penalized for being the messenger. Of course, you have to propose solutions, request funding, and marshal peer support for credibility.
4. Balance the focus on productivity versus creativity.
Every business needs a focus on productivity as it scales, but an exclusive focus on faster and cheaper processes minimizes the search for really new opportunities, and long-term growth. In addition, team member engagement and loyalty depend largely on the satisfaction of creativity.
5. Foster a work culture of fun, creativity, and new ideas.
People see a work culture of solving problems and repeating fixed processes as just work and drudgery. You will actually get more productivity, as well as innovative new opportunities, from your team by making the work fun through rewarding creativity, and giving them time to think ahead.
6. Don’t make innovation a function of the business plan.
Business plans should be outlines of your strategy, milestones, and finances, but not the required source for change timelines and innovation steps. The need for market and technology changes is unpredictable in any timeframe today. Make your innovations frequent and dynamic.
7. Celebrate change failures as learning opportunities.
If people fear that failed innovations will bring blame and retribution, they quickly learn to wait for edicts from above before getting creative. Promoting new changes as experiments reduces the stigma of failure, since everyone understands that experiments have a high failure rate.
8. Create and nurture a team dedicated to change.
Critical production organizations don’t have the time, mindset, or skills to focus on change, or look far ahead. Build a small dedicated team, sometimes called strategic planning, or change incubator. Choose team members who have been there, or think like entrepreneurs, and reward them on results.
In your business, if you don’t proactively take overt actions like these to foster creativity and innovation, both will likely be lost trying to satisfy existing customers, and trying to keep up with the daily operational challenges that we all have to deal with.
Don’t count on your competitors and startups to wait for you to respond. Your ability to survive and thrive in the long-term depend on it.