In my various experiences with consulting over the years, I have been struck many times by the lack of creativity that often leads to a floundering enterprise. Business owners need to take a long, hard look at the importance of innovation, especially in a business world that is offering challenges unprecedented in the lifetimes of many of us. In 2009, innovation is more essential to survival than it ever has been. The beginning point is an understanding of innovation–an understanding that dispels the myths about anything creative that many of us have come to believe.
The legendary management expert Peter Drucker, in his book Innovation and Entrepreneurship, has identified five major myths about innovation, all of them are specific to entrepreneurs.
1. Innovation is always planned and predictable. Wrong! The people who believe this myth are often the same ones who think that all new ideas must come from the research and development department of a larger company. Innovation should be encouraged among employees–and even among customers, when possible. It must be allowed to be spontaneous and reactive to problems and opportunities as they arise.
2. When a new idea is created, its specifications need to be thoroughly drawn up before the actual change takes place. Wrong! Going through a thorough writing of technical specifications is often simply too time-consuming. Drucker suggests the approach he calls try-test-revise. In other words, innovation often needs to be developed through attempts and checks, rather than via one master plan.
3. To be innovative, you must be a dreamer and a visionary. Wrong! Drucker insists that effective creators and innovators are usually very practical, down-to-earth folks who respond to the opportunities created by reality. They are not mere daydreamers.
4. To be “break-through” creative, you must develop ideas in large projects with a big group of planners. Wrong! This myth has been exploded many times. In fact, larger companies are now intentionally placing small groups together to create new ideas. Alex Osborne, the inventor of the brainstorming process, suggested smaller groups of six to eight to use his creative technique.
5. The driving force of innovation is technology. Mostly wrong! Most of us would have to agree that technology has been an important driving force for creative change—especially in the past three decades. However, technology has been only one force, not the entire picture. Rather than technology-driven ideas, the ideas that are customer-driven are the ones with the greatest potential for success. Do you remember hearing about the invention of quadraphonic sound back in the 1970s? The technology existed to create four separate soundtracks rather than just the two produced by the stereo sound systems of the time. However, the customer wasn’t ready for the new idea, so it flopped, at a great price to the sloppy-thinking innovators. Years later, Surround Sound came along in response to customer desire. The rest, as they say, is history.
Here are some tips on how to stimulate innovation in your business:
• First, establish an atmosphere for creativity. A creative atmosphere is one wherein new, sometimes frightening, ideas are encouraged, rather than discouraged. Such a workplace climate refuses to employ “killer phrases” that discourage innovation. (Examples: “It won’t work,” “It will cost too much money,” “Our competitors have probably already thought of it,” and so on.)
• Get forever rid of the unspoken assumption that “the way we are doing things now is the right way.” You will never be able to change the status quo if you and your employees worship it.
• Reward new ideas. If you can show a tangible profit increase that results from an employee suggestion, reward that employee with a percentage of the profit increase. Then, let it be known that you will do the same for other innovative employees, and you will have constructed a built-in motivation for creativity.
• Begin with the small stuff. Overarching, huge changes are not always necessary, especially at first. Allow your innovative plans to evolve as a part of your normal growth and development. Most small businesses cannot afford big mistakes. If your innovation turns out to be a mistake, make sure it is a small one.
• Base your innovations on customer feedback. Don’t assume that a new idea will work just because it is new and different. Let the customer decide that. Of course there are bound to be some exceptions. Some innovations must be applied behind the scene with no customer interest or visibility. (For example, a new purchasing plan or a new accounting approach.)
• Finally, treat every failure as a positive growth lesson. Learn from your mistakes, using them to build towards an innovative future. It is especially important that you not allow failures to frighten you out of future innovation.
• Don’t allow the economic downturn to stifle your creativity. Remember that many great ideas have been born out of hardship, some even out of survival.
In the present reality, we must be innovative to survive and grow. Make sure you are doing all you can to use the potential creativity that is already a part of your business.
Lowell H. Lamberton is Professor of Management at Central Oregon Community College. You may call Professor Lamberton at 383-7714 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.