6 ways to find inspiration to fuel innovation in your small business

Last week Laurie Breitner wrote a post about the importance of owners and leaders systematically reaching out to employees, customers and other stakeholders for ideas and insights to fuel innovation in their organizations. To get the most out of such efforts and to enable these stakeholders to be more sensitive to ideas when they come along, keep in mind the following:

• Seek out customers and others who make extraordinary requests or have demonstrated a history of pushing your products and services beyond the typical uses. Many of these will welcome your interest in their needs and appreciate the extra attention, especially if they anticipate that it may lead to new developments of value to them. Learn how they are using your products and services now. Which of their requests may appeal to other customers and so should be integrated into new product development plans?

• Go beyond asking customers what they think by watching what they do. Watching will help you to develop a deep understanding of how your products fit into your customer’s work or personal life. What are the points at which there is frustration with your offerings?  What brings delight?  Where do they push the limits? Would a new feature provide a greater benefit and strengthen your value proposition?

• Encourage your employees to become more innovative based on their own strengths. For example, an attentive listener/observer may be especially good at generating ideas based on the experiences of others; a natural tinkerer may be inspired to invent based on firsthand experience with problems; and those with diverse interests and backgrounds may excel at spotting ideas that could be imported from other industries or based on new technologies.

• Be alert to common sources of innovation such as:

•• Trends and changes in demographics, attitudes, the economy, your industry and/or markets: for example, as the population ages, new needs are arising to help people maintain health and independence.

•• Bottlenecks in your processes or those of your customers. For example, Southwest Airlines has worked hard to reduce the frustration associated with waiting in line to board an airplane.

•• Unusual or surprisingly good or bad operating results may indicate unrecognized opportunities or problems.

•• Knowledge or technologies that may enable you to cut costs, enter new markets, or build a new business upon your existing base.

• Distinguish between ideas that offer modest improvements in business as usual and big leaps forward. Both are important for keeping a business moving forward. Typically, modest improvements will cut costs, increase efficacy, and/or add new sales by improving current practices.

Commit to implementing ideas that make sense as soon as possible. This will demonstrate the value of ideas and encourage more participation. Bigger leaps, such as adding an e-tail business to an existing bricks-and-mortar retailer or entering a new market, have the potential to jumpstart significant long-term growth but are likely to require dedicated investment of funds and people. As well, success with big leaps often depends on the ability to make incremental improvements as implementation proceeds.

• Remember, it isn’t easy! Businesses weight and implement these preceding points differently depending on their circumstances and resources. If your business doesn’t have a process in place to identify new ideas, consider experimenting with one or more of the approaches above as a start and when the going gets tough, remember Thomas Edison’s observation that “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work” and keep going!

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Karen Utgoff, principal of Karen Lauter Utgoff Consulting, is a market-oriented business strategist based in Amherst, MA. Learn more at http://www.utgoff.com.

© Karen Lauter Utgoff Consulting 2011. All rights reserved.

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