How to Innovate, Even In A Small Company
Innovation doesn’t have to happen at a grand scale to impact your business.
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It's no secret that innovation is key to building a company with staying power - one that can weather shifts in technology, economic cycles, and customer preferences and buying habits. To innovate is to stay ahead of the curve and remain relevant, if not progressive.
The word "innovation" tends to conjure up images of game-changing, disruptive developments like the iPhone, or Uber, or Netflix amongst others. Disruptive innovation is one thing, but how do smaller companies without major resources to invest make smart innovation decisions?
Fortunately, innovation does not have to happen at a grand scale to make an impact on your business. As a leader, you are focused on a vision to carry your company through both the immediate business environment and what comes next. It can be tempting to either spend all of your time thinking the current business challenges, or to dream about visionary "what-if" innovations at the expense of more obvious, smaller-scale initiatives that can drive critical short-term returns and customer satisfaction.
An annual call for innovation ideas from your team is an easy way to strike a balance between these two paths while also creating buy-in and engagement with your team. The people on the frontlines of each department and function have a much better understanding of the improvements and possibilities worth proposing as time savers, client retention tools, or revenue drivers - and all of their improvements create results that add up.
Once a year, ask your managers (or directors, depending on the size of your organization) to wrangle feedback around innovation suggestions from their direct reports. It's helpful to give them a few ideas from past calls for innovation ideas, and some departments may choose to brainstorm ideas together.
My company is small enough to present all initiatives, but you may want to ask your management team to whittle those suggestions down based on agreed upon company-wide scoring criteria. This will be different for every company, but an example from Greenleaf Book Group follows.
Alignment with Company Goals (15%)
Is this project aligned to corporate goals & objectives?
Market Positioning (15%)
Does this initiative better position us in the market?
Core Capabilities (10%)
Does this initiative leverage our core capabilities?
Revenue Potential (10%)
What is the potential impact on revenue for this initiative?
Does this initiative have a solid cost/benefit proposition?
Low Cost (15%)
Is the initiative relatively low-cost to undertake?
Technical Risk (10%)
Probability of managing the technical challenges of the project?
Resources - Financial (5%)
Do we have the financial resources to take on this initiative?
Resources - People (5%)
Do we have the skills & bandwidth to take on this initiative?
Next, schedule a meeting with your management team to carefully review and evaluate the team's ideas. Don't rush this meeting! The ideas from your staff are gifts, and each should be considered fairly and in a spirit of facilitation and opportunity exploration versus critique, or you will never hear from them again on future iterations of this exercise.
Write a one-line description up on a whiteboard or giant post-it sheets as the presenter describes the innovation idea and the group asks clarifying questions. No judgment or nay saying allowed at this point.
Finally, ask each person in the manager/director meeting to vote for their top five innovation ideas using the same scoring criteria described previously. We simply have our team initial the ideas that get their votes. Count up the innovation ideas with the most votes and you'll have your working group of ideas to tackle in the coming year.
As CEO, you may have knowledge of other pending initiatives that could conflict with some of the vote-winners, so this is the point at which you can exercise executive privilege and remove any such suggestions from the working group. Just be sure to explain why, even if it has to be vague, such as, "I'm going to shelf this idea because it is quite similar to a program in development that you'll hear about soon."
When the list is final, assign an accountability "owner" to each initiative. This person will be responsible for keeping the idea moving forward, even if that ultimately means exploration and a decision not to proceed. Monthly updates will keep the team in the loop and allow for feedback and learning opportunities.
Innovation is a big responsibility. Tapping the minds and energy of your entire team will help you ensure that you're not overlooking the next big idea sitting right under your nose.