- Innovation should not be one individual’s defined role
- To become part of the company culture, everyone has to innovate
WHEN times are tough – and they often are for small and medium businesses (SMBs) – the most innovative thing you can do is figure out a way to keep the operation running at full strength from one day to the next.
For instance, in Singapore, sentiment amongst SMBs with regards to the business climate have been on the down over the past few quarters, and the Government has been relentlessly pushing businesses to innovate in order to stay ahead.
Ideally, the concept of innovation should offer SMBs the same thing it does to large organisations: New ways of working, serving customers, and ultimately growing the business.
One of the big differences in the way big companies approach this, of course, is by making innovation a defined role.
In a recent blog post, however, management consultant George Bradt suggests that’s not necessarily the approach you should take:
If one person is in charge of innovation, everyone else is not. And they must be. Anyone not innovating is falling behind those that are. Darwin taught us that that is a bad thing. So: No distinctions between scientific, artistic and interpersonal leaders. Everyone is responsible for innovating, creating and leading.
If that’s the case, how should SMBs – where people are already more likely to be wearing multiple hats – help their team share the challenge of innovation?
1) Define innovation as clearly as your mission statement
Innovation has been the big buzzword being bandied around many countries across Asia today. Be it Singapore’s push for improved productivity, or Hong Kong’s drive to create an increasingly skilled workforce for the future, every country has set in place initiatives to make innovation part of every company’s and employee’s DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid).
For this to happen, there must be a clear understanding of what innovation entails.
Spring Singapore describes innovation as the way companies seize new opportunities by looking at how they can “move into higher value businesses, redesign their business models and push for capability upgrading and productivity improvement in order to achieve sustainable growth.”
These opportunities could reside in internal processes, customer-facing things, or a mixture of the two.
Think about kickstarting your group approach to innovation by discussing what it collectively means to the team and work from there.
2) Tie innovation to KPIs
Even if you don’t use formal key performance indicators (KPIs), most businesses spend at least some time thinking about how various staff members contribute to the firm’s overall objectives, whether it’s getting more customers, selling more into existing customers, or reducing the time it takes to deal with customer support issues.
Of course, you always want to recognise and reward those who follow the established protocol to get these things done.
The best managers, however, go the next step by analysing how their top performers manage to shine, especially if they see workarounds or approaches that make them more competitive.
Even if you’re only offering the occasional pizza lunch to celebrate team successes, use these opportunities to recognise actions that not only represent good practices, but innovation within those practices.
It may inspire others do pursue some innovation of their own.
3) Encourage innovation through experimentation
It might be tempting to see innovation as something you launch through some structured brainstorming process.
A recent article on the Huffington Post, however, suggests innovation is far more likely to happen when people try something in the heat of the moment, rather than through thought-out deliberation:
Creative minds are constantly moving, and that's what triggers innovation. It's important to remember that stagnancy does nothing to solve problems; it allows them to grow and develop into bigger issues that take even more work to solve.
This could come in the form of encouraging employees to seek out avenues for personal development and training in both related and unrelated fields, for example. With initiatives like the SkillsFuture programme in Singapore, opportunities are aplenty.
It also has to do with creating a culture that enables continuous experimentation. This may be why organisations that empower their staff with mobile technologies on tablets and smartphones often seem among the most innovative.
By having increased access to data wherever they go, those companies have a greater ability to work through customer problems when they are actually sitting in front of those customers, rather than waiting until they come back to the office for a weekly staff meeting.
4) Pay attention to unexpected customer frustrations
When customers mention something that has nothing to do with your firm’s particular products and services, the reaction tends to be bewilderment or at best a sympathetic shrug.
Companies which choose to listen closely to these pain-points stand to benefit from not only a better appreciation of the world their customers live in, but also an opportunity to further that relationship through innovations that solves their problems.
An article in The Straits Times describes innovation as “… a journey – it begins with understanding the customer, followed by a better internal process and interface design that often has to be revamped.”
By placing customers at the centre, businesses stand to gain valuable insight that may lead them to unlocking greater potential in their processes and offerings.
5) Innovate alongside your customers
SMBs aren’t the only ones striving to be more innovative, of course. Their customers are often looking for ideas that create dynamic change in their own environments, or across their sector as a whole.
If they only see you as a supplier of products or services, you’re not likely to get close to that activity.
If, however, your use of marketing automation, CRM (customer relationship management) and analytics demonstrates a deeper insight into their needs, they may be more likely to discuss higher-level objectives where you can contribute in new ways.
If a customer sees you as a cog in its innovation engine, it is more likely to be your customer for life.
Simon Tate is area vice president, Commercial Business Unit, Asia, Salesforce.
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