Innovation: don't rely on lightbulb moments!

How can small businesses foster innovation so they can bring new ideas to market? We ask an expert for advice and encouragement on how to thrive in a competitive marketplace.

It's a common experience that if a word is repeated quickly and often enough it starts to lose any meaning. The overuse of words like `excellence' and `innovation' leaves nowhere to go when seeking to describe the introduction of a process or product that harbours truly special qualities capable of adding real value to a business. And this is what innovation should be, according to Dr Kevin McFarthing, founder of the Innovation Fixer consultancy.

Here are his tips for genuine innovation.

  • Don’t expect instant results

    Most innovation takes time to bear fruit and often the end-product has changed considerably from what was conceived at the outset. Indeed, the flash of inspiration from a single mind very rarely happens. A collaborative approach to idea generation and product development is what works.
  • Keep it simple

    Ideas need to be kept simple, implementable and useable. The simpler a product is to make, the more profitable it is likely to be. This works for services too: the easier an idea is for people to understand the benefit, the more likely they are to engage with it.
  • Seek out inspiration

    There are many ways to stimulate ideas. The classic `brainstorming' session still works and whilst it is often criticised for only generating small ideas, this only happens if it's not managed well. Expert guidance may be sought. Anything that can be done to introduce diverse thinking to a problem or opportunity should significantly improve the chances of success. If you have the same people around the same table trying to solve the same set of problems, you're likely to get the same results.

    …and externally
    Involving customers should go beyond simply asking what they need. By probing their real feelings and motivations, it can provide understanding of the true opportunity. The insight driving Procter & Gamble's development of the disposable nappy was not that the child should remain dry but that the parent should get some sleep: this changed the design emphasis to comfort not just dryness.
    Chance collisions can be a source of inspiration encouraging people to get out and about and to interact with individuals who aren't necessarily working in the same field. It works on the basis that you might come across new ways of thinking which could add value to your business.
    The concept of the `naïve challenger' - someone from outside the bubble of a specific business or sector - can usefully ask the kind of questions that those inside would either not think of or fear asking. By inviting loosely or unconnected creative individuals to attend idea-generation sessions, their naïve questioning can unlock a train of thought that would otherwise lay dormant.
  • Set targets

    Innovation should be bound up with the strategic imperatives of the business. If you have set expectations, then you should set targets. Expectations should be made clear to all. Without clarity, people will head straight to their comfort zone. It is vital too that in setting targets, the business fully supports innovative efforts.
  • Don’t be afraid to fail

    Failure is to be expected at some point in innovation. Demanding a 100% success rate will naturally curtail ambition. To avoid betting everything on one project, larger companies may adopt a portfolio approach. This requires running a group of very likely winners and speculative projects concurrently. In managing any project, it is important to distinguish between determination and persistence, and blind stubbornness. Businesses must keep checking which mindset they have but know too that there isn't a formula anywhere that will show you which is which.
  • Don’t hold it back

    Overly bureaucratising innovation management will damage success. Keep the process as simple as possible so that people can feel free to experiment. And whilst documentation of product development is necessary, especially when seeking to register intellectual property, keep the paperwork to a sensible level.
  • Own it collectively

    Traditionally structured companies, where strict verticals keep functions apart, can stifle innovation. Innovation can and should come from anywhere and needs to straddle most if not all functions to ensure maximum benefit.
    Although someone at the top, with the ability to reduce internal barriers, needs to own the innovation process, everyone should own good ideas and bring a collective and collaborative approach to their success in the marketplace.

More thought leadership from HSBC

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