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If you’re like many entrepreneurs, you probably feel like you’ve had enough change in the past 18 months to last a lifetime. In the midst of a global pandemic and the ensuing upheaval, business leaders across industries were forced to shutter their offices, send employees home and find ways to maintain some semblance of business normalcy.
In the midst of these changes, growth has taken a back seat for many entrepreneurs. Whereas capturing new growth was a top priority for 60 percent of leaders before the coronavirus pandemic, just 25 percent said the same thing mid-pandemic, according to McKinsey. Understandably so, as it’s difficult to imagine expanding and innovating when you’re worried about keeping the lights on.
Now that life is starting to look more like it did before the pandemic in many parts of the world, you might be tempted to cling to what you know. It can be scary to reach for something new after stabilizing your business during the tumult of the pandemic. However, breaking away from the norm with new, innovative solutions will be the key to success moving forward.
Innovation isn’t what you think it is
What is innovation? The word might call to mind mad scientists or Ph.D.s with lab coats — people whose sole purpose in life is to make sweeping changes that disrupt the world as we know it. It also might make you think of things in the media (massive innovations get the most praise and airtime, after all). These perceptions of innovation probably lead you to believe that larger-than-life innovations drive the most change. So it’s only natural that you might be hesitant to embrace innovation at your company.
But major innovations only account for a small percentage of growth and change. In practice, innovation often comes in tiny doses — and there’s a very real possibility that it doesn’t even register as innovation to those who contribute to it. In addition, many seemingly major innovations are simply micro innovations that stuck around.
Uber provides a good example of this. Even though the ride-sharing company is often viewed as the poster child for disruptive innovation, its activity really wasn’t a groundbreaking development. Taxis and cabs were already well-established, along with GPS and mapping technologies. The only change Uber made was transitioning the call center to individual mobile devices, which was a small innovation with a massive impact.
But if innovation is an incremental process, how can you get started? You can leverage many methods out there, from forming unusual partnerships to providing time for dreaming and creativity. Here are some of the strategies I use at my company to get the innovative juices flowing:
1. Start with yes
At the beginning of the pandemic, many companies stuck to their established playbooks just to survive. Those that thrived are the ones that pivoted. Think of beer and spirit producers, such as Anheuser-Busch and Diageo, that made hand sanitizer early on in the pandemic. Their innovation not only fulfilled an urgent need, but also added a new revenue line.
As an event marketing company, my business had to remain open to change. Events weren’t happening in person anymore, so we had to innovate to survive. We had done very few fully virtual events when the lockdowns began, but as customers started asking for help in this space, we had to ensure our people had the confidence to say yes and then understand how to get it done.
At first, we relied heavily on partnerships with best-in-class companies. We realized our customers wanted something different, however, so we started building an innovative in-house platform that we believe is the future of events. Without saying yes at the start of the pandemic when uncertainty was at an all-time high, we would have missed massive opportunities down the road, such as the chance to create a new and immersive outdoor experience that has seen success. When an exciting opportunity comes your way — even if you’re not 100 percent sure whether your company can deliver — say yes. If you have the right people behind you and an innovative mindset, you’ll find a solution that opens up a world of possibilities.
2. Take baby steps toward change
Sweeping changes make headlines, such as United Airlines’ commitment to being 100 percent carbon neutral by 2050. The goal and the deadline both feel like a long way off, but it will be a journey of many small steps if the airline company — which is part of an industry that produces some of the most pollution — can hope to achieve the desired outcome. One of those steps is the purchase of 100 electric planes that are expected to be in service by 2026. Each one carries just 19 passengers and has a range of 400 kilometers, but United isn’t waiting until the technology scales to larger aircraft. It’s taking small steps to reach its goal.
No matter what you’re hoping to achieve, innovation doesn’t have to be revolutionary or happen all at once. Break the process down into small steps or bite-sized goals that get you a little bit closer to the ultimate outcome. Delegate tasks across your organization, and bring together disparate teams that can brainstorm how to accomplish them.
Stellar ideas can come from anywhere, and diverse perspectives will help encourage the small innovations that eventually lead to a big impact. And when you encourage this among your team — and celebrate it when it happens — it also changes your culture into one that embraces change and innovation versus one that remains stuck in the old.
3. Give innovation an honest chance
I’m a huge believer that you need to take small steps toward innovation versus going for the Big Bang, but you also need to make sure you’re investing enough to really test a concept. You don’t have to dive straight into the deep end, but you also don’t want to be dipping your toes in the kiddie pool. For example, EY found that more than one-quarter of organizations have invested in an innovation leader position, and 42 percent plan to create one to nurture innovation. That’s no small commitment, and though it might seem risky, it’s necessary to reap the rewards you want.
When our chief revenue officer got to Bluewater, it was clear to him that we needed to ramp up our proactive sales engine, and a big part of this initiative was the creation of a sales development team. The simple way to start would have been to ask an existing employee or two to spend part of their time on the project, but that solution wouldn’t have been enough. If one person tries something and it doesn’t work out, was it a failed experiment, or just the wrong commitment?
Whenever your organization is facing a similar scenario, give the initiative a proper shot. We hired two dedicated employees for this task. They learn from each other and compete in a friendly and motivating way. Why start with two? If one person doesn’t excel, the initiative doesn’t have to start from scratch or get scrapped entirely. We’ve now doubled the initial two-person sales development team to four people. And based on year-over-year results, we’ll probably double or triple it again next year.
Small, incremental innovations aren’t the showstoppers that make headlines or land billions in venture capital funding. But like the quiet power of compound interest, they’ll add up over time and amount to something you never thought possible. Create the environment for these wins by saying yes to valuable opportunities, relying on incremental improvement to achieve big changes and making a tangible investment in your organization’s innovation engine.