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Five ways to generate ideas for your business

Originally published on April 16, 2014 as a Guest Column in The Globe and Mail.

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I was recently asked what I considered the best practices a business owner can adopt to stimulate growth. Full disclosure: I struggle with the term ‘best practices.’ It seems so absolute. For any of us who have been in our own businesses, we know that there’s nothing definitive about the best ways to get things done.

So instead of best practices, I like to think of these as the five steps that I have found helpful in stimulating ideas, change and growth in my own businesses, and those I have worked with. Let me frame these steps with one overriding thought: “Great ideas aren’t found in your screensaver. If you tilt your head up, just a little bit, there is a world of opportunity right in front of you.” Stimulating growth is a proactive, everyday activity involving all your senses.

1. Get out of the office. It’s tough, I understand. We all get caught up in our business’ front-burner issues. But you need to make time to regularly break away, get out of the office and get inspired by what others are doing. It’s simple. Attend conferences. Not just those for your industry, but those serving other industries to give you fresh perspectives, go to a workshop or join a peer mastermind group. If you manufacture consumer goods or are a retailer, look for clues about what consumers are thinking, saying and doing. Walk, don’t cab, when visiting another city. Take time to window – or mystery-shop, to see what product leaders in other categories are doing. Above all, join relevant LinkedIn groups and read the latest industry news and comments. This torrent of industry intelligence provides immediate inspiration and feedback, as well as resource experts and potential prospects to exchange ideas with.

2. Listen more, speak less. When I shifted from running a manufacturing business to being a consultant, I was told that if I was speaking more than one-third of the time, I wasn’t doing enough listening – and that meant that I was going to miss the challenges and pain-points my clients were expressing. Learn to do the same thing in your business. Listen to your customers. Take them for lunch every quarter or so, just to talk. Ask them what’s keeping them up at night and what they are worried about six, 12 and 18 months down the line. There’s no better way to grow your business than to solve your customers’ challenges before your competitors do.

3. Realize that you are not an island. Most entrepreneurs start their businesses as one or two people, often out of their homes. But as business grows, you must recognize that you have a team – employees, advisers, friends who see and hear things different things on a daily basis. They generate ideas and from these ideas come opportunities. Make sure you have a system to solicit and capture their input. Remember, when you choose your advisers (or set up a formal advisory board), make sure that some of them represent industries other than your own. You can always benefit from additional perspectives.

4. Don’t forget to change the oil. You wouldn’t change the oil in your car once a year. The engine would sputter and die. Ditto for a business. Its engine needs to be continuously primed with ideas for new, better and improved products, processes and services. These keep your customers engaged and buying (more) from you. The days are long gone when you could make the exact same product for years, or confine innovation to once-a-year corporate retreats.

5. Set up an ideas board in your office or business meeting room. As ideas come up, don’t write them on the back of napkin, put them up on the board. Monthly, run these ideas by your internal team and your advisors. Choose a couple that you believe make the most sense. Then run the ideas by your customers at your next quarterly lunch. These are the people who buy what you sell. Let them weigh in. If they like your new ideas, you might just close your first sale.

Keep your ears and eyes open. Stay engaged. Listen. Relevant opportunities are being offered to you every day. They are your next step forward.

What do eBay, Coke, Proctor & Gamble, GE, Whirlpool and 3M have in Common?

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Recently these companies, and others, participated in the Unleashing Innovation Summit in NYC which I had the pleasure of attending.  There were organizations from around the globe that came together to focus on innovation with an emphasis on people and culture.  It was great to see innovation thought leaders discussing this very critical issue and have them reinforce what I have believed and practiced for over 15 years.  There was lots of sharing of experience on what worked and what didn’t when adopting an innovation focused culture.

So What’s Working…

From the group of participants it appears that companies are doing a good job at identifying the opportunities to address and are managing through the process of innovation rather well.  In their approach, large companies are striving to emulate small company’s entrepreneurism.  Companies are forming non-traditional partnerships and looking within their organization to their employees for solutions to improve the customer experience.  As an example we heard first hand about the success and challenges overcome in the design and launch of Coke Freestyle.  From the experience I have had leading change initiatives, leaders traditionally find the process improvement portion to be the easier part, mastering it more quickly.  This appears to hold true in the evolution of the adoption of innovation.

Today’s Challenges…

From case studies, fireside chats and storytelling we learned that the challenge of ingraining innovation into the culture was a difficult one facing many companies.  Also, the majority of companies are still grappling with the vulnerability of risk.  While we all understand the benefits of “fail, fail fast and fail often” it is still difficult to successfully make that part of an organization’s culture.  A culture where employees are not punished for making mistakes appears to still be a rarity.  Some of the successful cultural initiatives to overcome this we heard about included Innovation Day at United Health Group, Viz Kitchen from eBay and the BASF Cultural Ambassador program as forums to involve employees and even in some cases customers in the innovation process.

As a change leader I’ve found that fully delivering a cultural change takes effort and time.  The effort put forth in ensuring all of the moving parts align can be daunting but pays big dividends.  And affording the needed time to not only do it right the first time but in allowing employees to adapt and adjust is not something you can fast forward through – there just aren’t any short cuts to quality change.

The Future…

For me, the signs are clearer now than ever.  Organizations are looking within for ways to better delight customers, engage employees and impact their bottom line.  For companies wanting to do this through innovation the biggest challenge appears to be fostering a culture of innovation.  For us innovative change agents, our time has come!

Unleashing Innovation in New York

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When I first had the pleasure of Chairing and speaking at an international conference on innovation, all the talk was about the stage-gate process.  Literally, talk after talk summarized the steps to market and (figuratively) why seven was better than five but twelve must be way too many.  Interesting, but hardly enough to hold a senior executive riveted for three full days.

Fast forward just a few years later and my how the world has changed.  Unleashing Innovation in NY spoke to the great diversity of innovation approaches.  Yes, stage-gating was still a topic for discussion but added to the agenda was a strong mix of crowdsourcing, innovation through acquisition and a focus on intrapreneurship.

Full disclosure, as an entrepreneur, intrapraneurship fascinates me and dominates my innovation practice.  Simply put, it’s about embracing the ideas of your employees – be they 300 or 300,000 strong.  Sounds simple.  Should be intuitive.  But, it’s been slow to emerge (at least for my liking).

Maybe this will get your started. A recently co-authored article by the Disney Institute and McKinsey offers this important insight, “The secret to delighting customers? Put employees first.” That’s encouraging. Delight your employees and they will delight your customers with “new, better and improved” products and services.

Intuitive, really. Who better to recognize product, service and process opportunity than those on the path to the customer?  And what better way to motivate and engage your workforce than to listen to them and respect their insights.  This was, in fact, the single biggest focus of the conference and made for great discussion, insights and debate.

Borrowed from the pages of the conferences’ overview, “Savvy leaders shape the culture of the company to drive innovation…design interplay between company’s strategies with the ways people actually relate to one another. “

Other insights from the conference include:

  • Large companies are striving to emulate a small company’s entrepreneurism
  • Customers are consistently being put at the front of the process
  • Focus has shifted from process to people emphasizing integration, culture and organization transformation
  • The challenge of ingraining innovation into the culture is a difficult one facing many companies
  • Unconventional partnerships are being forged to speed up the innovation process
  • The majority of companies are grappling with the vulnerability of risk taking
  • Walking the talk with regards to encouraging risk taking is still proving to be difficult
  • The answers are within your organization, you just have to ask your employees

Unleashing innovation needs to embrace all forms of innovation from the traditional top-level stage-gate approach through to inclusiveness of intrapreneurship.  But, as we learned, getting started can be as simple as listening, sharing, collaborating, empowering and engaging with purpose, a positive attitude and a culture of belief.

I’m in.