Published on Thursday, December 10, 2015

Creating a Culture of Innovation in Small Companies

It’s not only huge multi-national companies that can afford to have a culture of innovation. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that no company, whatever the size, can afford not to put innovation first.

Innovation is the way that you come up with ground-breaking ideas that bounce your business to the head of the queue. iPhone? Definitely innovation. Dyson vacuum cleaner? Definitely innovation.

These examples are actual items for consumers to own. You don’t have to be making a physical product to value innovation. Other items like insurance policies or ebooks can also be innovative, as anyone who has read something created with iBooks Author will know.

The kind of creative thinking needed to come up with inspired ideas like these relies on a culture of innovation and the right tools being made available to your teams. Here’s how to get started.

Step 1: People

The first thing you need if you want to focus on innovation is the right people. A creative team is one that is made up of people from various backgrounds and disciplines. Most important, your end user should be represented. They are perfectly placed to share stories of what works with your current products and what doesn’t. And they can talk about the pain points as a consumer and what they experience elsewhere.

A multi-disciplinary team will help you bring together experts in visual design, user research and the technologists required to turn your visions into reality, once you get to that point.

Also consider the make up of your teams from different angles: do you have a diverse and balanced group covering a wide range of demographic backgrounds? A young female graduate is likely to have a very different outlook and background to draw from than a male executive nearing retirement (although both, of course, are equally valid).

In short, you will struggle to be a company that values innovation and comes up with creative ideas if you can’t put the right people together to solve your problems.

Step 2: Processes

People need to be supported by business processes and tools that foster innovation. A general process for ideation and formulating creative solutions to advance your corporate strategy is this:

  • Research phase and problem scoping
  • Idea generation
  • Prototype selected ideas
  • Build final selection
  • Test
  • Deploy

Underpinning all of these stages is validation: every step should be validated by the team and the end users to ensure that the project will deliver something useful that will advance strategy and meet the creative and innovation objectives of the company.

There are two main pitfalls that businesses face when trying to apply these processes – or a similar step-by-step approach to handling creative problem solving in your business. These are:

Talking about solutions too early: It’s too easy to discuss solutions when you should be talking about problems. The scoping stage should be exactly that – a detailed conversation with the right people about the problems facing users. Scope out what the pain points are. Create user stories. It’s too early to dive into designing a solution, especially as you don’t have a full understanding of what the issue is.

Not having the right tools: You can’t expect teams to come up with bright ideas if they don’t have a set of tools to help them. Crucial to this is a way to record their ideas, because someone will forget what was discussed or wonder why an idea was rejected. You need mindmapping tools to record the output of creative discussions. You can invest in online collaboration tool so the discussions continue even after the workshops have ended. Web conferencing helps teams stay in touch. Shared document repositories and even video sharing tools can help keep ideas fresh and ensure everyone remains on the same page as work progresses.

Step 3: Space

Finally, you probably know that creative ideas happen outside of the normal workplace. How many times have you had a fantastic idea or drafted the perfect response to an email in your head while in the shower or cooking dinner? Sometimes all it takes for inspiration to strike is to not be at your desk.

Provide your teams with the space they need to be creative and to innovate. This doesn’t have to be hard. Set aside some shared workshop space in your office for anyone to use for creative thinking sessions. Equip it with a laptop and projector so that they can capture the output straight into their mind mapping tools from the meeting itself.

Small companies can find this difficult as often teams are virtual or office space is so tight that you can’t afford to keep a dedicated area for innovation. The good news is that you don’t have to have it set up all the time. Just while you are trying to solve a customer problem or creating your strategy for next year. Or create a virtual meeting space online with your collaboration tools.

You can also use hired meeting space, but that can feel a bit more formal. If you can dedicate a room or even a breakout area in your own building you can personalise it more and create a lovely space for people to relax and innovate away from the distractions of their normal area.

And if you are in a country that has fantastic weather at least some of the year, why not get outside for some of your workshops? Most tools are mobile in that you can still access your tech and mindmapping systems while you are out and about, and the fresh air could be just what you need to come up with the next commercial breakthrough for your company.

How do you foster innovation in your company – big or small?

About the author

Elizabeth Harrin is the author and award-winning blogger behind A Girl’s Guide To Project Management. Review her other predictions for hot business trends on her blog

 

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