Innovation is a necessity.
Businesses last in the long term by refreshing, evolving, and growing. Too often, success is thought of as a mountain with a top to reach, rather than as a lifelong process of refinement and improvement. This way of thinking is dangerous, as it can turn success into stagnation. Your business may reach the mountaintop, but where does it go from there?
It’s been said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. I’d argue the opposite: a given approach may work well and yield great results, but it’s unlikely to do so forever in a constantly changing business environment. With the point of diminishing returns always over the horizon, it’s important to maintain a permanent commitment to creativity.
Manifesting innovation isn’t always easy. Fortunately, there are several resources that any business person can draw inspiration from. To keep your operation from growing stagnant, look to these tried and true methods.
Innovate an innovation. The idea that breathes new life into your business doesn’t have to come from you; it might just need to be discovered by you. By keeping track of new approaches and innovations in other businesses, you may find that what works elsewhere can be modified to serve your operation.
Take Henry Ford. Historically, he’s credited with revolutionizing the auto industry by using factory-line assembly techniques to make cars affordable. However, Americans today wouldn’t know Ford from any other Gilded Age startup if not for Swift & Company, whose conveyor-driven “disassembly lines” could turn a freshly slaughtered steer into market-ready packaged meat in record time.
Ford didn’t create the concept, he repurposed a meat-packer’s innovation by putting car parts on it and running it backwards. Here at Business Republic, we drew inspiration from Radiolingua, a company that sought to make language education more accessible through short podcasts. As it turned out, business education could’ve used a little democratization too, hence the $100 MBA Show. By being creative enough to mold existing innovation to your purposes, you can identify game changers that already exist.
Ask the customers. Your customers know the most about what they want, so solicit their advice. Some feedback may be predictable- requests for lower prices or faster service, for example. Others may surprise you, like requests for new features or personalization that you wouldn’t have considered had you not asked.
Don’t fear complaints. Customers should feel comfortable telling you what they don’t like, because their dissatisfaction could be the key to your innovation. Let customers know that their feedback, positive and negative, is valuable- because it is. Create contests where feedback can be rewarded with prizes, like the free memberships users who leave reviews on iTunes can win from the $100 MBA. It’s a wise investment.
Don’t ask the customers. Just listen to them. Sometimes, asking the customers directly works. Other times, it’s better to learn from them in a more subtle way. Simply studying your customers can reveal an opportunity for innovation that even they might not think to ask for.
Levi Strauss didn’t ask customers if they wanted holes in their jeans. They simply noticed that people were taking scissors to their denim and reacted accordingly, launching the “distressed” trend. Heinz noticed the cultural running gag about the difficulty of getting their product out of the bottle, and designed an upside-down one.
Sometimes, all it takes is open eyes and ears- even easier today given blogs, chat forums, and social media in which customers discuss their experiences with each other. Sit back and listen, and your next great innovation may be overheard rather than suggested.
Ask your team. Everyone likes to have input, but often employees are afraid to offer too much of it. Make sure everyone on your team feels comfortable offering suggestions for improvements and innovations. In their day-to-day work, they may see trends and opportunities that you can’t.
If employees are afraid of overstepping their boundaries, they may stay quiet. Be sure to encourage creativity and actively solicit ideas. Otherwise, someone may keep a great one to themselves, at your business’s expense.
Collaborate. Reach out to other companies in your field, or in related fields, to find new approaches or co-create new products. If another business with a similar philosophy can complement your business with a different skill set, it only makes sense to team up.
For example, the increasingly popular Smart car is a result of the union between a major auto manufacturer and a watchmaker. Fuel efficient eco-statements are all the rage, but making things that are tiny and economical was never Mercedes Benz’s forte. Finally, they turned to Swatch.
With their help, Benz designed the adorable quasi-cars currently filling Whole Foods parking lots nationwide. If you’re willing to see what other companies can do for you (and what you can do for them), the results can be groundbreaking.
Watch the competition. It’s important to follow your competitors with a critical eye. Learn from what they do right, and wrong. In a crowded field, there’s always a way to stand out, provided you can identify gaps in the service being offered to the consumer base.
Case in point: there were plenty of video rental stores, and trying to open a new one anywhere within sniffing distance of a Blockbuster would’ve been financial suicide in the early 21st century. Then the good people at Netflix realized something critical: people hate driving to video stores.
Now a quickly-buffering stream of Orange is the New Black echoes through the vacant lots where Blockbusters once stood. That’s not to say destroying competition is the goal. The goal is simply to find opportunities to serve customers that the competition overlooks.
Change the delivery. Sometimes, a major change to the product itself isn’t necessary if you can change the way customers access it. Allowing new trial periods, offering complementary products in a package, or bundling services are all ways to deliver the same things in innovative ways.
Recently, online “subscription box” companies like Harrys.com and Naturebox have been selling everything from shaving accessories to clothing to meal plans as part of monthly membership packages. Rather than trying to sell products one at a time, they simply sell their good reputations and do the shopping for the customer. The key is to find new ways to get the product to them, rather than trying to bring them to the product.
Look to the past. Marketing trends don’t just come and go; they cycle. Sometimes those cycles are long enough for great marketing innovations to have been forgotten, just waiting for a forward (or in this case, backward) thinking entrepreneur to revive them for a new generation.
The recent boom in monthly subscription sites is nothing more than a 21st century retooling of the “of the month” clubs that have been honing in on niche markets for generations. Speed dating services and matchmaking sites are arguably just modern iterations of the Victorian dance cards that first allowed quick and efficient skimming of romantic prospects. Sometimes the best way to change things up is to change things back.
Innovation takes creativity, open-mindedness, and courage. It’s not easy, and it can be especially challenging for entrepreneurs with narrow profit margins or small business trying to grow their way out of tough times. It is, however, critical. Commit your business to a standing policy of innovation. Schedule time for brainstorming sessions and broad strategy meetings to encourage fresh ideas. Challenging yourself this way will keep you sharp, and keep your business moving forward.