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Advance. Or Die.

OK, you are not going to die but rather the company you own or work for will – maybe.  It’s no surprise that continuously looking for, and executing opportunities to make your business better is a necessity.  Unless you are advancing more rapidly than your competition, you are moving backwards.  Do you think your competition is sitting back waiting for things to happen?  Some are.  But some are not.  The latter are aggressively improving – or perhaps reinventing – their business in response to financial, market, customer or competitive pressures.

I have always had respect and admiration for companies that successfully develop or utilize technology.  Further back than I would care to admit (my computer was a 286 Compaq if that gives you any idea) I was keen to learn how new technology was impacting businesses and their efforts to innovate and compete for customers.

General Electric recently released a report based on an independent survey of 1,000 business executives in 12 countries. The “GE Global Innovation Barometer” looks at big-picture innovation questions such as economic policy, national growth, innovation drivers, likely opportunities where innovation will have the most societal impact and so on.  Now, “innovation” can be considered the extreme of “advancement”.  Innovation, in my view, is a game-changer and disruptive like the iPod, Amazon etc.  These are well-known consumer examples but in each industry there are companies that break new ground and change the rules.

The GE survey highlights some interesting thoughts for small business and individuals.

  • 75% of executives Strongly Agree that SMEs and individuals can be as innovative as large companies
  • 69% Strongly Agree that innovation is driven more by people’s creativity than by high level scientific research
  • 76% Strongly Agree that, more than ever, innovation needs to be localized to serve specific market needs
  • 75% Strongly Agree that the way companies will innovate in the 21st century is totally different than the way they have innovated in the past.

The GE survey focuses on technology innovation with a global perspective.  But, does this mean that the results have no relevance to smaller businesses?  I don’t think so.  Notice that SMEs (Small and Medium Enterprise) and individuals were prominently mentioned.

And what if your company doesn’t build new technology?  What if you are in retail?  A rare, few companies will develop and introduce a disruptive new innovation that redefines the rules (i.e. iPod).  But even without ground breaking innovation, every business needs to advance the way they do business if they want to grow.   Maybe your advancement is a unique and better customer buying experience, superior training for managers and staff, leapfrogging your competition by employing technology, a new customer service model, etc.

If you believe, as these 1000 leaders do, that innovation is the key to growth, then how are you going to foster and tap into the creativity of your people?  How are you developing your staff and what environment do you have in place so they can express their views?  What about execution?  Unless the idea gets successfully executed, it is still just an idea.  And, if you have been an innovation leader in the past, how are you going to maintain that energy and ability to deliver?   I bet you can name a tech giant or two that is struggling to keep pace with the competition’s new product and service offerings.

Successful business owners and entrepreneurs know that there is always a better way, always an opportunity.  Relying on past successes as an indicator of future performance, or not delivering a product or service that is somehow superior compared to your competition, is a recipe for a slow or quick death.  You don’t want to die, do you?  That’s a rhetorical question.

If you had to name one challenge that gets in your way of advancing or innovating in your business, what would it be?

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Make time to find the right idea

I recently had what I considered to be a great idea. It was something that would help both me and my department and it was, in my opinion, the next best thing to sliced bread. I shared my brilliance with some of my co-workers and everyone agreed that I was on the right track, that what I was looking for not only could be accomplished but that it could be considered a benefit to our clients. I modestly pat myself on the back, and then tried to find someone with more experience in these matters to help me.

After a month nothing happened and no one could find time to help me. I assumed that my proposal was dead in the water.

It’s not that my idea wasn’t a good suggestion, and it’s not that no one else thought it was a good plan. But when your employees are constantly trying to help clients and improve current products and bring in new clients and put out today’s fires, who has time to think about tomorrow or the next day? It’s great to be creative and try to bring something innovative into the fold, but unless that new product is a time machine that lets you get more done in the course of a day, there’s a big chance that your next big thing is never going to leave the drawing board.

Innovation is what drives the economy. Without someone creating and implementing an idea for a product, businesses would never develop. Some of the most creative people that you will ever meet are highly successful entrepreneurs, because they can see something that the rest of the general public can’t and they can see how to make that idea happen. The problem is that this surge of inspiration can be hard to maintain over the long term, especially once your business starts to grow. Many business owners and managers are struggling to keep their operations above water, fighting recessions and downturns in economy and competition and market saturation. Bringing something new into play usually is not an option. But innovation is what can keep a business afloat even if it seems like too much time/effort/money at the start. The right idea at the right time can mean a whole new avenue of options for your business, including an increased market share, new clients, and new branding. Of course, all of these things usually result in more revenue, as well.

The best ideas and inspiration will come from two places: your employees and your clients. Who knows your product better than the people that you’ve hired to create it, and the people who pay you to use it? Keep the lines of communication open, both internally and externally. No idea is too small or insignificant to be looked at. Encourage your staff to work together and brainstorm and help each other come up with solutions to problems, rather than just managing the day’s to-do list and moving on. Not every suggestion is going to result in a reasonable product, but you’ll never know that if you don’t take the time to examine the risk/reward factors and determine the idea’s true potential.

If your organization doesn’t currently have something in place that allows employees to communicate ideas to their managers, you can always suggest that it should be. I’m fortunate enough to work at a place that is encouraging this type of openness (which is how I found out that my idea isn’t dead but rather it’s being considered and talked about), but not everyone has that creative channel available to them. Maybe that can be your first great innovation. You should never be afraid to talk to the people in charge and let them know that you have an idea that could make the company better.

Is innovation something that your business focuses a lot of time on, or do you find it hard to come up with new ideas while juggling current problems? What does your business do to encourage growth and improvement in your product?

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