By Vincent Dajani
Almost every business wants to be the next big innovator in its industry. So how do you find that great idea that has never been tried before? It’s easy in theory: Come up with a great concept and make it a reality — now you’re innovative! But when it really comes down to it, innovation is a daunting task. How can you make it into a manageable process?
Innovate or die
Innovation is no longer something that scientists in labs do — it’s about differentiating your business. For growing businesses in particular, the motto is “innovate or die.”
“What was working in the past isn’t necessarily what’s working today,” says Staci L. Redmon, president and CEO of Strategy and Management Services, Inc. (SAMS). “We have to consistently be innovating and reinventing ourselves.”
Being innovative means putting yourself on the leading edge of the industry. “You get to a point where you can no longer rely on the products and processes that you have in place,” says Chris Steel, chief solutions architect of Software AG Government Solutions. “You can die as a company because your competition is going to continue to grow. Innovation opens up new areas that allow you to grow [as well].”
So is it possible to just flip the switch and start innovating? The short answer is no. The long answer is that if you’re worried about being innovative, chances are you won’t be. Where, then, does innovation come from?
It all starts with culture, says Redmon. “If we look at innovation and how we make it a tangible process, we foster that culture of innovation. Every employee is an innovator.”
Innovative companies have open communication in their DNA. They are constantly looking for ways to solve problems, says Shameem Hameed, president and CEO of ZH Healthcare. “We get our ideas from an open system. People come up with a lot of ideas, and some of our customers say, ‘If it could be done this way, it would make our lives easier.’ A good idea should be easy to integrate.”
Ideas can come from anywhere, and the only way to start being innovative is to jump in headfirst. Think about your differentiators, Hameed advises. “For a small company, we have to innovate to stay alive. Innovate or perish. How can we compete with a large company? That is through innovation. Innovation can come not just in products, but in processes.”
Focusing on the core of your business, your customers, is the best way to get to that “Aha!” moment. “How can we do something better with not only the innovation but the efficiency behind it?” says Redmon. “Innovation is a critical part of a corporate strategy. At the end of the day, ideas need to recognize the needs of customers. Innovation is the best way to do that.”
There you have it. You’ve set yourself up to succeed and planted the seeds for identifying a potential innovation. But now the hard part happens: turning your idea into a reality.
The innovation ‘process’
Just having a good idea isn’t enough — now you have to implement it. And that takes time, resources and a lot of guts. “When people think freely, they aren’t afraid to put ideas out there,” says Susan Yee, CEO of Active Data. “Their idea may create world peace, but the challenge is budget and marketing. How long do you want to sit in a room with bright folks who have their own idea? Then how do you get that through the execution process? In an innovative company, how do you pick the one idea to run with?”
Beyond just being a process, innovation needs to be organic, and it needs to mesh with the core of your company, says Lori Leitgeb, CEO of Stack Builders. “It is easy to fall into over-engineering and over-innovating. That is where agile development really helps. We stay focused on prioritized, smaller deliverables to keep the feedback loop tight and come up with relevant new ideas.”
You can set a time to brainstorm new ideas and a structure to follow from start to finish, but it will be different every time — and it needs to be. The point of innovating is to create something that has never been done before. You can’t create a process for the unknown. So what do you do?
“We explain [the idea], we repeat it and then we float it by the sales team,” says Yee. “Have they heard this discussion before? Is this something people want, but isn’t in a specific feature? Then we identify pain points and values with customers. Then we structure it and put it out there. The structure starts once we’ve identified a new idea, but the actual innovation process needs to be open and unstructured, like an open forum.”
The key is “having that mentality that there is not one right way to do something. You need commitment from people to grow, so you have to be open to ideas from anywhere,” says Earl Millett, COO of Civic Works. Guidelines and an overarching workflow plan will help you manage the transition from ideas to execution.
Be prepared for the execution of your plan to take some time. “You have to be willing to do research and test,” says Mike Greaney, CEO of Force 3. “It has to be something you’re constantly trying to educate yourself on and learn. Innovation becomes part of your strategic plan.”
Don’t forget to measure everything, especially before implementation and once you’re getting reactions from your clients, he says. “You need to have metrics and benchmarks. Then, what are the tripwires? At some point, if [something] isn’t happening, what are you going to do?”
Remember: An idea can’t be an innovation if it doesn’t solve a problem or isn’t accepted by your customers. “No matter how good that idea is,” says Millett, “if it doesn’t answer their problem, they’re not going to want to hear what you have to say.”
The how-to of innovation from idea to execution
- Get your culture ready for innovation. Many employees may not have the self-confidence to speak up about their own ideas initially. Developing a culture that encourages new ideas takes time, but holding regular meetings to brainstorm and talk about the future of the business can help generate ideas. “There are companies that, at their heart, are innovative — like Apple,” says Chris Steel, chief solutions architect of Software AG Government Solutions. “You find those companies that are putting a lot of money into research and development, the products they’re working on and how those products are differentiated.”
- Look out for good ideas. Ideas can come from anywhere, including customers and employees. Look at your market and the gaps within it. Ask your potential buyers about their problems and see if your company is able to provide a unique solution. “You have to keep your ear to the ground to see what your users need. You cannot just say that this is the way the rest of the world is doing it, so we’re going to do that too,” says Shameem Hameed, president and CEO of ZH Healthcare.
- Strike “We can’t do that” from your vocabulary. These words don’t belong in an innovative company. The whole point of innovation is to create something that has never been done before, which means you’ll never know whether you can do it before you start, says Hameed. “Companies like HubSpot have changed traditional marketing. If somebody calls us, you’re talking to a real person, not a sales person who shoves an idea down your throat,” he says. When it comes to solutions, he recommends telling customers: “We found something else that may work for you.”
- Create a goal. The ultimate goal of your innovation needs to be the end product, or the impact you will have on the industry. “ It’s not about having a great idea, it’s about creating that idea,” says Hameed. “It’s about how quickly and how well you can execute it.”
- Keep asking the fundamental questions. Will this solution solve a problem for your customers? If the answer is yes, then how does it also enhance your position as a company? Ideas come in many forms — “employees’ suggestions, customers, articles, best practices, or the fact that we just need a new way of doing this,” says Redmon.
- Show leadership. Of course you need a team for R&D, but when it comes to leading the new idea as it’s executed, it’s up to the business owner to guide the company, says Hameed. “If you want to innovate, it has to come from the top leadership,” he says.
- Don’t innovate just for the sake of it. An idea may sound great to you, but if it doesn’t solve a customer problem or align with your business, then it’s best not to proceed. Know when an innovation is likely to fail, Steel recommends. “There’s a lot of downside to trying to remain constantly innovative. You put a lot of time and money into initiatives that end up not going anywhere. You have to be very careful where you put that time and money.”
- Make sure people know you’re innovating. If you have an innovative new product or service, you can’t give it a name people are already familiar with. It’s new and exciting, so embrace it as a way to solve your customers’ problems and create something no one else has ever imagined, says Redmon.
We asked local business leaders to weigh in on their strategies for innovation, and any results they’ve seen.
“There are so many challenges we face globally. Some can be incremental or others truly innovative. I think the word gets thrown around so much, it has lost its true value. It does require a lot of smart and hard work. You have to do the work, long days, lots of airports, and many, many field trips. It requires constant discovery and research. You have to ask: Can it be better? If so, you know you have to keep going. Innovation does not happen in a vacuum. It is shaped by our life experiences and those around us. Our process is idea on Monday, proof of concept by Wednesday and prototype on Friday, then take it home and share it with friends and family. Get feedback and start again. Do this four times, and in one month you are further ahead than many working on things for a year or more.”
“Innovation is a word that can be overused, but it is simply being willing to take a risk on a new approach to an old challenge. I don’t know why we’re on this planet, but I feel comfortable prioritizing just that — getting smarter about how we spend our time. For me, that means thinking about how to better strengthen a tech community, like with journalism and events. That means experimenting with connecting people by mixing the digital and the analog. I challenge myself to do things differently by dropping the barriers — free-range thinking on my bicycle does it best, but writing and speaking with other smart people creatively and without boundaries does the job too. Focus on mission, not method. That way you’re not wedded to an old way of doing something, just a goal.”
“You need to meet with a client or prospect and ask a lot of questions. Then you listen and take notes. You meet with your team to discuss what everyone’s strengths and capabilities are. What you want to do is take their capabilities and push the envelope for what your clients are asking for. What will differentiate them from their competition, or what will change the way they do business? We bring the expertise in each industry into the conversation so that we know what’s innovative where. We bring that all together in a presentation that will help our clients’ brands appeal to their customers. Any company can deliver products, but you need to try to deliver creative and innovative solutions. … Make sure you ask if the solution is correct for them. And then you refine it again. You can really make an impact. … If you’re not an innovator, you can’t be taught to think that way. Innovation is the life’s blood of a business.”
“We innovate because there’s an opportunity to, and that creates our differentiator. If you don’t do that, then it’s really hard to compete. Innovation is required. It’s all about identifying a technology gap or issue and the easiest way to fix that. You identify what might potentially work and then go from there. The hardest part is picking the correct method. You might be able to come up with a bunch of ideas, but only two of them are cost-effective. If it’s something familiar, it makes it a lot quicker in the process. Identify a solution, build test models and run it through a test plan to see if it actually worked. We’ve doubled in size every year because of innovation. The amount of possibilities has been huge for us.” CEO
THE INNOVATION PROCESS IN A NUTSHELL
Colin Jeavons, CEO, shares NTENT’s process for getting from idea to implementation:
- Ask yourself: Where is there a slow process and where is the experience not as good as it potentially could be?
- Next, think about how to design products to innovate and present user benefits. What’s the resource requirement for this innovation? What is your time frame? In a world where you could focus on a thousand things, narrow it down to three.
- Sit down with your product innovation and marketing teams and look at ways to communicate your product to the market when it’s ready.
- Constantly compare user adoption after that.
- The final component is managing the monetary process. Go back to engineering for tweaks and to increase the quality of the product.
TOP FIVE FUNDAMENTAL QUESTIONS
- Does this product/feature/solution already exist, and where are these solutions limited?
- Is there another creative way to solve this problem or develop this feature?
- Am I really addressing the root cause of an issue with this solution? Can I dig deeper?
- Have I taken the time to step back and think about the big picture or am I focusing too much on the details?
- Can I play devil’s advocate against my idea and refine it?