In today’s intensely competitive global economy, innovation has never been more important for business success. Most experts acknowledge that innovation can be the shot in the arm companies need. Yet, how do you create a company that unleashes and capitalizes on innovation?
Innovation helps companies adapt and evolve in order to survive and grow. In many cases, innovation may be driven by the need to solve customer problems or to pursue new opportunities. How innovation creates workable solutions for problems that matter depends on you, but here are a few suggestions for making your business more innovative:
Step out of your comfort zone
Disrupting the status quo fuels innovation. For disruption to lead to successful innovation, you’ll have to embrace the unknown and become comfortable operating outside of your company’s comfort zone. Business leaders who operate outside of their personal and professional comfort zones push the envelope in ways that make conventional leaders cringe.
How do you start stepping out of your comfort zone? First, take small steps away from what’s familiar and into areas that are not so recognizable. Start by calling your favorite and least-favorite customers. Ask both for candid feedback on what your company does well – and not so well – in serving them. Be open to the feedback, and take decisive action based on what you’ve learned. An effective approach to getting out of your comfort zone involves learning from customers what your company’s true relationship is with them, rather than your viewpoint on the relationship.
Next, get comfortable with being uncomfortable. This is working for John Perry, CEO of Gainesville-based Altavian. “When Altavian started out, our marketing was reactive,” Perry says. “If you are looking for what we sell, you can find us. Then, I realized to be serious about growing Altavian, we had to get out of our comfort zones.”
This approach has been successful for Perry and Team Altavian. He gives talks to the industry, hosts brown-bag lunches with employees, calls on customers and aligns Altavian with Gainesville-area civic and business activities. Perry has stepped out of his comfort zone by putting himself in the marketplace as the face of Altavian.
“I was not a sales or marketing person, so it was a personal challenge to focus on those aspects of the business,” Perry says. “It was clear that our business would fail otherwise if I did not. Now I’m out shaking hands and meeting customers and, in the process, evolving into a more effective leader. Altavian has embraced being an innovation-driven company, as well as learned that innovation is not only technical. We had to step outside our comfort zones in several areas.”
Condone—and, oftentimes, reward—failure
You do not start the day intent on steering your company toward failure. Yet, innovation’s occupational hazard is characterized by failure, which is why creating and supporting a culture of successful innovation requires courage. On top of that, patience is needed because your business may not see immediate results. Once courage and patience are in place, you must condone – and sometimes reward – failure. All three foundational elements are part of your company’s culture of successful innovation.
Consider your own company’s efforts when it comes to creating and supporting a culture of successful innovation. If your company is small and nimble, a lack of resources might hold you back from creating a culture of successful innovation. Gainesville-based Fracture has limited resources, yet its leadership and employees find creative ways to infuse innovation into the company’s product line and business processes. Fracture owes its continued growth and success to creating and supporting a culture of successful innovation.
Conversely, your company might be big and bureaucratic, with plenty of available resources. Change occurs slowly at this company, and often with limited success, because adapting a culture of innovation can be unwieldy and untenable. Yet, big and bureaucratic companies can, and do, foster a culture of successful innovation. Verizon placed big bets on Google’s Android for smartphones and on fiber optics for landlines. The company continues to seek new ways for wireless networks to run everything, including cars and refrigerators. That’s because Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam sees small “pots of gold” – from product innovations to process innovations – throughout the company.
Fortune follows the brave, at least in theory. What happens in real life with innovation depends on the courage and patience of business leaders. That’s because successful innovation often results after small – and sometimes large – setbacks occur. Determined innovators persist in spite of failures; yet, persistence often leads to winning outcomes for companies willing to exercise courage and patience. Failure is not the desired outcome in business, yet successful innovation calls for lots of small, timely missteps.
Balance creativity & imagination with operating structure & business process
Before achieving this balance, companies must take an important step on the path to achieving successful innovation. That critical step is to marry solvable problems with workable solutions. It is in our nature to be creative, and our imagination is poised to run wild – if only we let it – to arrive at possible solutions. Some of us (engineers, take a bow) are adept at solving problems with pragmatic solutions, which is great because workable solutions springboard successful innovation. Given that most of us are creatures of habit who crave structure, it is no secret that processes rule the day in the land of business. The innovation process, then, balances what is natural for us to do with how we prefer to operate.
This is exactly the case with innovative companies like Apple and IDEO. Apple’s genius lies in the company’s ability to arrive swiftly and correctly at the crux of a pressing problem. Then, Apple being Apple, it refuses to settle for half-baked solutions; its employees find – in the words of the late Steve Jobs – “beautiful, elegant solutions that work.”
The design firm IDEO’s ingenuity is on par with Apple. IDEO conducts brainstorming sessions in which it requires participants to produce scores of ideas in mere minutes. This impossible time limit and audacious quota forces participants to submit top-of-mind thoughts and ideas, including “way-out-there” ideas. IDEO then subjects the brainstorming’s outcomes to detailed scrutiny and exhaustive evaluation.
The key to successful innovation is to “toggle” back and forth between problems identified and solutions proposed. Doing so allows the innovation process to move forward in producing solid outcomes. Along the way, it is important to commit to the testing of product prototypes; forget about perfection and beauty, just build something ugly, but functional. Use IDEO’s three “R’s” to guide your prototyping efforts: rough; rapid; and right. Or, in today’s parlance: “wash; rinse; and repeat.”
Balancing creativity and imagination with operating structure and business processes can be achieved. An innovation culture and solid operating processes can happily coexist within your company. It just takes stepping outside of your comfort zone to get there. Doing so is proof positive of the valuable outcomes that can occur when you focus on making your business more innovative.
David Whitney is Entrepreneur in Residence at the UF’s college of engineering. He also teaches engineering innovation to undergraduate and graduate students at UF. In addition, Whitney is the founding managing director of Energent Ventures, a Gainesville-based investor in start-up companies.