by Patrick Stroh, author of “Business Strategy: Plan, Execute, Win!“
To stay relevant these days, your company must innovate or die. For many leaders, scarier words have never been spoken. But it might take the pressure off to realize the I-word doesn’t necessarily mean what you think. An “innovation” doesn’t have to be a hot new product worthy of Steve Jobs or a Eureka! moment that transforms your company. Setting your sights on achieving a steady stream of tiny incremental innovations can be an incredibly powerful approach.
It’s easy to be intimidated if you believe you must constantly come up with big, market-disrupting inventions. This mindset can paralyze you or, conversely, send you down a costly wrong path.
The truth is, an innovation can be a revamped business process or a tweak to a manufacturing technique or a change in the way you work with a supplier — as long as it adds to customer value, it counts. Better to hardwire your culture so that people are driven and equipped to constantly be looking for small and medium-size innovations (versus just big breakthrough advancements).
So, what is it about small innovations that makes them so impactful? Here are a few insights:
Small innovations are quick and easy to implement.
You don’t have to devote a ton of time and energy to them or pull people away from their regular jobs. Most of us are already working at maximum capacity. If the choice is a) stop what you’re doing and implement some big, complex new innovation, or b) maintain the status quo, guess what? Most will choose the status quo — and find themselves on the slow slide toward irrelevance.
They’re (relatively) inexpensive.
This is a big reason why resource-strapped companies find smaller innovations so attractive. They require smaller investments up front. Plus, they’re far more “forgiving” in terms of mistakes: For many companies, pouring a lot of money into a huge new product that crashes and burns would be catastrophic.
They make life better for employees.
No one knows how to solve a problem better than the employee who experiences it firsthand. Truly empower people to be problem solvers and you’d better believe they’ll do it. Why wouldn’t they? An employee-driven process innovation may improve efficiency and productivity. There’s also a good bit of self-interest. Happier employees with smoother workdays lead to happier customers.
They spark customer-centric thinking.
Because every innovation goes through a “does this create value?” litmus test, people learn to focus on the customer’s wants and needs. Employees at all levels start noticing opportunities to add value. Over time, the customer can only grow more and more satisfied.
They’re democratic and engaging. Everyone at every level gets a vote on how to run the company.
Making everyone responsible for advancing innovation — not just creative types or leaders, but also left-brainers and frontline people — improves company-wide engagement. When you have a ‘say’ and some control over your own life, buy-in and enthusiasm soar. Plus, the system described in my book brings the talents of many different personality types to the innovation process — and the results can be incredible.
They lead to quick wins, which in turn build momentum and boost morale.
When employees think up small innovations that are quickly implemented, they see results right away. They experience the benefits, enjoy the praise, get a hit of confidence. Naturally, they are inspired to repeat the process — so they do. Success begets more success. Encouraging and rewarding small innovations is a good way to keep the success coming.
Small innovations, over time, add up to big company- and even market-changing ones.
A focus on small innovations dramatically increases the brainpower being directed toward innovation. As the self-perpetuating one-small-innovation-leads-to-
Hardwiring your culture for small innovations is an organic way to keep everyone focused on creating customer value. It’s not a series of disconnected projects; it’s an ongoing way of life. Solving problems and anticipating the customer’s needs is a daily part of the job. It’s the best possible way to survive in a marketplace that’s never been tougher.
Patrick Stroh is president of Mercury Business Advisors, providing management advisory services in business strategy, innovation, and product development, and author of “Advancing Innovation: Galvanizing, Enabling & Measuring for Innovation Value!” and”Business Strategy: Plan, Execute, Win!“. He serves on the board of directors for the Institute of Management Accountants and was also appointed as a fellow in Palladium’s Positive Impact Research Institute.