How do you keep innovation alive?

How do you keep innovation alive was discussed recently at the Business Exposure Group Meeting. 

We started by considering the proposition that during the recession the one big reason why businesses stagnate or flat line is lack of innovation. 

Many business owners are battle weary, feeling that they have to constantly innovate to stay alive.  But really innovation should reduce the dependency on the owner and move from the unconscious process used by the owner to come up with new ideas, to a more formal process, allowing staff to come up with the good ideas and which will ultimately have a higher level of success and ‘buy-in’. 

Simon Curtis suggested that innovation in small businesses occurs in three ways;

a ) following trends            b) copying other businesses            c)  paying attention to customer feedback 

Not everyone agreed that copying was innovation, however, many thought that implementation of a clever idea into your specific business was innovation. 

A lively discussion took place as to whether the member’s employees would consider ‘innovation’ as part of their job specification, which prompted Alan Jarvis to state that when interviewing he always asks the candidate to tell him something that they have invented.  If they can’t reply by saying, I found a new way to file, or improved on a reporting process, or created a new technique for dealing with customers, then he ends the interview, because if people can’t be proactive and even think of small levels of innovation, then he doesn’t have a vacancy for them within his business. 

I suppose businesses that build creative change into their structure are far more likely to survive the recession – It’s one way of finding a true competitive advantage. 

Innovation goes beyond new product development.  It’s about doing things better, quicker and more cost effectively.  According to research by City Bank, more than half of SME business owners say that they have had to re-invent themselves to stay afloat, with 47% focusing on overhauling products and services, 24% adjusting technology and staff and 29% staying updated about their industry. 

But the reality on the ground is that because small companies are usually short staffed and are constantly trying to get customers in as many ways as possible, the business gets focused exclusively on customer driven development and innovation quickly gets lost. 

Further points brought out during the discussion included: – 

–          the value of the ‘Google model’ where staff are encouraged to spend 20% of their time on  projects that aren’t related to what they are working on

–          that small businesses should use far more frequently the use of external university graduate expertise to gain an innovative style

–          that the cure for many businesses, is not in cost cutting, but the cure is to innovate your way out of a constrained business environment, into a more exciting and vibrant business and mind-set.

What are your views about innovation within small companies? We would love to have your comments.


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