Great Innovation Advice – If You Can’t Beat It, Link It!

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Since starting this blog six weeks ago, I committed myself to writing an original article each Monday. Today, I am going to fail. The reason? This advice on how to fail when you’re used to winning is incredible – detailed, practical and covering so much more than it’s title suggests. If you believe that innovation must be contextualised in terms of your vision, your team and your culture (and you should believe it!) then take read this and use it as your blueprint. Thank you @SarahM !

One of the strategies Sarah suggests is that keeping a live, working mission statement helps you view failures as a contributing part of the progress towards achieving your long term goals. I would add to that the idea that innovation has a higher chance of success if it starts with a fresh look at your mission statement and values.

On our SMART Cheshire programme starts by getting businesses to look at their vision, values and mission. We get business owners back in touch with what they are doing and why they are doing it. We also get them to question whether they have drifted from this and, if so, should they revise their vision or refocus their activities to align them back with their original vision.

Fairly typical stuff to work on in supporting businesses in fields like strategic leadership but often omitted from innovation support.

I don’t know why that should be. Common sense would suggest that if you have a link between your overall strategic goals and your innovation project,  you are much more likely to launch a successful new product.

So next time you come up with a great idea, do a sense check on how it fits, or could fit, with your overall vision and values before you spend too much time getting enthused by it. It might be the right product but not for you.

Innovation – it is worth the risk?

A well-known quote by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is:

‘The biggest risk is to not take any risk at all’

But for many small business owners, innovation is perceived as a risk and one they are reluctant to take.

In this article I look at how small businesses can actively use risk management as a way to identify when they need to innovate.

Leaders of small businesses are often risk averse.

We ask everyone who joins our business support programmes at Manchester Metropolitan University to assess their attitude to risk. A significant majority rate it as low to medium. My expectation was that owners of small businesses would intrinsically be comfortable with risk. However it there is a very clear distinction between entrepreneurs who actively seek and manage risk and the majority of small business owners who tend to be more comfortable only with low risk decisions.

This is understandable in that their business is their livelihood in a way that it will never be for the employee of a larger organisation. Playing safe seems like a sensible option.

‘The Biggest Risk…’

The dilemma is that this is increasingly not the case. Even sectors which no-one would ever have dreamed of being susceptible to radical change have or are in the process of profound changes which are destroying those who do not change with them. The most obvious example of this is the switch to online retail which is closing physical shops at a rapid rate. Some retailers have adapted and are arguably providing better customer service than ever – but the point is that these are the ones who saw the risks and innovated. KMPG have published a health check for retail businesses showing how rapidly decline can happen but also how interventions can help them continue to thrive.

More recently in the UK, Uber, and its competitors like My Taxi and Gett, have very quickly switched from being a source of some amusement among traditional taxi firms to a very serious threat indeed. If I were a taxi firm operator, even in some remote rural location that would appear to be Uber-free, I think I could safely bet on that model of operation becoming the norm within the next few years.

So what to do?

I have seen structured risk management work as a powerful enabler of change and innovation since it opens the eyes of the business up to what it could do better or what threats are emerging. However, it can also be a complex, time-consuming and arcane activity.

I believe that we need to promote high quality, methodical but relatively simple models of risk assessment to small businesses as a means of future-proofing them.

At its simplest, risk management has three steps:

  • Identify the risk
  • Assess the risk
  • Mitigate the risk.

One simple approach

If you were to use this to assess threats to your sales from new competitors or products, one approach would be:

  1. Who are the new entrants to our market and what are they doing? If you say ‘no-one’ you need to do more research. You can pretty much assume that someone out there will be trying out new ways of getting into the market. I randomly tested this out for ice cream manufacturing. A web search for new ideas for ice cream manufacturing came up with this article talking about some immediate trends and, more importantly, some developments on a more distant event horizon that you should start monitoring as potential risks.
  2. From an end user perspective, is there any other way their need could be fulfilled without using or product or service? If you don’t already do it, putting yourself in your customer’s shoes every now and again is a great way of testing whether you are serving them well. Lisa Bodell, in Kill the Company talks of a great alternative where company executives are set the task of destroying a competitor – only to find out it is actually their own company they are successfully dismantling.
  3. If I were the end user for one or our own products or services, what would I regard as the most ideal way of getting what I need? How is this different to what we do?
  4. If I were one of these new competitors, how would I make sure I succeeded?
  5. If a new competitor can succeed by doing that, shouldn’t we be doing it?????

When the Tortoise beats the Hare

Here’s an interesting article by Jesse Weaver which closely reflects some of my views on innovation. There is no doubt that the disruptors are the ones the media finds sexy so we hear much more about them. And when they succeed, they do tend to win big. And yes, they are generally amazing.

However, the vast majority of innovation is AND SHOULD BE sustaining – keeping your business up-to-date and healthy.

In his article Jesse writes:

‘We assume first to market is best. Yet, according to researchers at Northwestern, late entrants to a market are more successful than first-movers 70 percent of the time.’

This is not particularly surprising. Of course innovations based upon observation of the market’s response to a new idea are likely to be better suited to the market, and easier and cheaper to develop than the original disruptive product.

So, here’s a thought if you find yourself trying to think up the next best thing in your industry. Stop. Look round and see what is already working really well and has changed the market and see if you can come up with an even better version of it. Just bear in mind, those disruptors will come and change the game again so never think any innovation is final!

Innovation is NOT about Ideas!

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Innovation is not about having an idea.

Yes, you read that correctly – innovation is NOT about having ideas.

This is one of the most common mistakes people make when they claim they can’t innovate. So you don‘t have any ideas – actually, that’s great news!

A big mistake people make when they innovate is to start with an idea.

Innovation is about knowing your customers, their problems and their pain points.

In Steven Johnson’s amazing TED Talk (S Johnson Ted Talk) about where good ideas come from, he points out that although people tend to claim a ‘light bulb moment’, in truth this is usually something that has been simmering in the background for some time while they sub-consciously go through an innovation checklist on the idea.

You can bet that somewhere in the background the idea started because they or people they were observing had a problem they wanted to solve. They did NOT wake up morning with a fresh new idea that popped out of thin air. Yes, this sort of innovation does happen and, on rare but highly publicised occasions, results in a game-changing innovation. But the vast majority of successful business innovation comes about from following some challenging but practical steps, which start from the customer perspective.

Until you have a good understanding of what problems your customer has that needs to be solved, you are best off avoiding any ideas about what your product might be as, chances are, you’ll define a customer problem that fits your product but which isn’t actually what they want solved.

Your customers are outcome-driven. Find out what the outcome is and what barriers and pains are in their way and you’ll have a sweet spot for innovation.

Why does my customer need my product or service?

The first step is finding out precisely why your customers use your products. This is often formulated as ‘What problem does the customer have?’. The answer may not be as obvious as you think and even your customers may not be able to articulate it clearly. The classic story about this was when Henry Ford said that if he had asked his customers what they want, they would have said a faster horse. In fact what they wanted was to get from A to B faster. (For the fact nerds amongst us, he never actually said that – but he definitely should have!)

Start by observing your customer do what they do

You need to come up with different ways of finding out what their needs are. The best innovators swear by observation – watch your customers doing the tasks that require your product and question them as they carry it out.

Talk round the problem not about it

Start with why they use the product but don’t limit yourself to that. Ask what worries or frustrates them in their business, what other products they use, what churn do they have in staffing – whatever seems to flow naturally from the task they are carrying out. What you are after is insights into the story around their use of the product not facts about how they use it.

Triangulate

Of course, this is not always an option. Perhaps you have no customers yet or they may be they are distributed worldwide. There are plenty of other techniques for researching your customer problems. However, since they are not always reliable, I would always triangulate to test their validity. Use three quite different techniques and try to identify the consistent strands.

Ask the experts

Talk to industry insiders – if not directly, via trade magazines, web searches on key words, or LinkedIn –a great way of connecting with experts. Ask your customer service, sales and other front line people what customers are talking about, what complaints they have, who hasn’t bought their product and why not.

Now you can have some ideas!

One final thing – once you have identified some of your customers problems, don’t then rush out and try to solve every small thing the customers have said they want. If you truly understand what they need, you can come up with a genuinely innovative product rather than a set of add-on features. This is the point where you can crack out the light bulb and start having some great ideas.

Have you fallen for one of the biggest business myths?

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Thanks for joining me!

I talk to so many owners and CEOs of small businesses who claim they can’t innovate or that it isn’t something they need to do. This site is a response to the frustration I feel that TV, social media and high profile gurus have created this myth; that innovation is the domain of a few elite business geniuses.

No business would exist if its owners had not innovated at some point.

The smaller the business, the greater the chances that it innovated quite recently. How else did these businesses get set up in the first place?

So are you innovating?

If not, what’s your excuse?

Ever heard yourself say one of these?

  • I don’t have the time!
  • We just sell services!
  • Our products are not scientific or high-tech!
  • We’re doing fine, there’s no need for new products!
  • I’m not creative, I just run a business!

If one of those sounds like you, can I suggest that you have been brainwashed into believing that is the reason? The fact is you simply haven’t been told how to innovate. It is actually a straightforward business process not that different to any other process.

But if you knew that, the innovation gurus wouldn’t be able to charge huge sums to create innovation magic for you, would they? And it would definitely make a certain television series very boring indeed!

To innovate successfully, you need to be willing to do four rather obvious things:

  1. Follow a process
  2. Work hard
  3. Take risks – but not necessarily large ones
  4. Invest resources – mostly time.

Successful innovation is process-driven.

There are tried and tested routes for getting to a successful launch. These will vary to fit your business structure and size but essentially they all come down to using techniques to carry out each of these stages:

  • Develop an insight into your market
  • Identify your customer pains
  • Hypothesis about the best way to solve them
  • Develop and test prototypes in terms of marketability and production capability
  • Get out to market

Successful innovation requires hard work.

When the process is listed as above, it looks quite simple. In truth, each stage requires a time commitment, fairly ruthless self-challenging and, critically, a willingness to put in the effort, not just the time.

You need to be prepared to drive yourself and your team to carry out a demanding cycle of digging deep into problems and solutions and then, if need be, having the guts to stop. This may be either because you have enough proof that things work and can move on – or because you have done enough to realise it won’t work so you need to take a step back and start that part of the process again.

Successful innovation demands a willingness to take risks.

Venture capitalists are often quoted as saying that they regard an acceptable success rate as 10%. Then again, they do tend to invest in the high return, high risk innovations. Even so, innovation is innately risky since it deals with highly uncertain situations.

An innovation process is designed to reduce this risk by narrowing down the uncertainties and preventing you spending too much time and money on things that won’t work.

Successful innovation requires you to invest resources.

Depending on your innovations, there may be minimal costs other than time, or there may be huge capital and R&D outlays. You need to understand before you start your innovation how much time and money you are willing to spend and to be tough with yourselves about stopping once you have spent that without meeting your objectives.

One of the benefits of using a rapid innovation process is that you commit to small, testable steps that do not require you to commit all the resources up front. In that way, you significantly reduce the risks of innovation.

Creativity is thinking up new things. Innovation is doing new things.

Theodore Levitt