Thinking Outside the Box: Fostering a Culture of Innovation

office meeting

Thinking Outside the Box: Fostering a Culture of Innovation

I recently met with a service company due to some outdoor plumbing problems that impacted the indoor plumbing, which is never good! This was the third company to be involved in my short quest to solve this problem, and the most innovative. This company uses cool new technology to “reline” your pipes. If they are failing or rotted, they can use a plastic-like resin to create a new lining for your pipe that will fix it from the inside without digging up your existing pipes. Who knew this was a thing? It will save me money, eliminate the mess, and they won’t need to dig up my patio and yard.

Innovation is everywhere. We admire the companies who improve their industry and make things easier for us as consumers.

Think of Uber, Airbnb, Amazon, Netflix, Tesla, and others. They all took an idea and made it real. They were built on innovation.

What about those of us who own or lead businesses? Would we benefit by innovating in our space? The answer is likely a resounding yes. I’m sure there are some businesses where innovation is unimportant, but I can’t think of any. I bought a garden hose the other day, and even those look different in the last year or two. I also bought grass seed and learned that it now has a coating to hold in moisture. Everything is changing, and if we don’t innovate, we fall behind. Just ask Blockbuster; well, maybe not. I think they closed their last remaining store.

We like the big examples, but innovating can be something other than industry-changing to be business-impacting. Innovating in our business usually comes in smaller increments but still produces large rewards.

How Can We Inspire Innovation?

  1. Reserve time for it. This action item is in the #1 slot for a reason. How often do we take a step away and think about the long-range? I intend to do this quarterly, but so often, it is difficult to even slip that into the daily pull of things to be done. It is so important to carve out the time, monthly, quarterly, or whatever it takes to make time to innovate.
  2. Study your customers. Understanding our customers is so necessary for innovation. How can we innovate if we don’t know what people need or want? And the customers’ needs are constantly changing. Meet with them. Ask good questions. Learn their business so you can serve them better.
  3. Have a “how can we” mindset. Too often, we turn off an idea before fully exploring it. If Jeff Bezos had squelched the idea of home delivery for literally everything instead of pursuing his vision, we would have never known it is really what we want. When exploring an idea, ask, “How can we” and then ask again and again. If you can’t get all the way there, consider how to take some steps in that direction.
  4. Don’t be afraid to try it out. I’ve seen this play out in our internal discussions about innovating how we deliver services. After identifying an innovative change, it is common to encounter fear and objections. We hear from ourselves or others that it won’t work, or we are worried that some unwanted side-effect will happen. Suggesting we try it out for the next two weeks or two months is a great way to take steps toward innovation. And, from experience, those fears are most often unwarranted.

Asking the right questions is one of those cool life hacks that applies to various situations and certainly applies to innovation. Here are some great Starter Innovation Questions to begin your planning:

The Customer Questions

What would have the most significant impact if we eliminate it for our customers? What do customers hate about our product or service, or field? What do they love and want more of? In an imaginary world with no roadblocks, what would customers change about conducting business with us? How can we help our customers innovate? Can we improve our value by providing one more level of service or an additional product? How do we reduce friction in the customer or prospective customer relationship or buying cycle?

Business Process Questions

What are we doing that no longer has a reason or purpose? What data or dashboard would help us stay on track? What should we measure that we are not, and what should we stop measuring? What is our most significant point of leverage – the one thing that, if we did, would make things exponentially better? Where are things stalling or breaking down? Can we redistribute responsibilities and improve?

Team Questions

What person are we over-reliant upon to fill the gap or keep things from breaking down? Who needs to be more utilized and challenged by their work? Where are we ignoring a problematic team member because the pain of change is too great? Where should we be challenging our team members to lead and innovate? Are we appropriately delegating and calling others to more responsibility? What training would benefit our team?

Technology Questions

What technology changes have we implemented in the last 2-years that were impactful? If the answer is nothing, we are lagging badly. Who is our designated technology champion that will bring new ideas and helps us innovate? Have we kept up with cybersecurity changes and added new protection measures? Where should we explore new technology to help us automate our work process and control the steps of daily work? Are we implementing new features in our ERP, CRM, and other software platforms? Are we up to date with our software, or falling behind? What is the most significant risk to our business with our technology?

Innovation drives change, and change drives us forward. Carve out the time to innovate in a way that improves the lives of others. The impact will be felt in your organization, with your customers, and even beyond your industry, and the world.