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In the not-too-distant past, innovation was viewed as a glamorous activity primarily left either to disruptive startups and entrepreneurs or to specific departments which were cordoned off from the others within a larger company. It was not, in other words, a part of most organizations’ daily routines.
The events of the past two years, however, radically changed that view for many. For both major corporations and smaller startups, innovation became a lifeline, helping them stay relevant to consumers in a time when the traditional way of doing things went out the window. In 2020, the businesses that looked to the future didn’t just survive but flourished.
In addition to the increased success of tech giants such as Amazon and Microsoft, smaller, forward-thinking companies also made a name for themselves. Fitness startup Tonal, for example, used smart tech to create a better home gym that could adapt to individual needs on the go. Along with Peloton’s remote fitness instructors, Tonal’s virtual coach was perfectly positioned to become the next big thing in fitness, thanks to its innovative approach.
It wasn’t just fitness and tech that saw an increase in the importance of innovation. According to the 2021 American Innovation Index, innovation increased by five points across 20 industries last year and has continued to rise in 2021, indicating that this is not simply a temporary bump but a lasting change in how innovation is approached.
How to make innovation an integral part of your organization
Going forward, startups and established businesses that want to generate long-term success will have to take innovation out of the ivory tower and into the nitty-gritty of the everyday. Here are four ways to begin doing just that:
1. Be proactive, not reactive
Innovation doesn’t mean iterating on the same old thing or responding to a competitor’s new product with a slightly better version of it. It means pursuing something completely different that consumers don’t realize they want until it’s out in the world. Innovation values bravery and boldness, requiring you to be 10 steps ahead rather than just reacting to what’s already there.
If this sounds like a tall order, that’s because it is. For a company to take a more proactive stance, it has to change the way people think throughout the entire organization. Innovation doesn’t work if it’s only within the purview of the few; it needs to be embedded in the culture.
An effective way to move innovation into a company’s mainstream is to make it a part of the daily routine. To take innovation into the realm of the extraordinary, you need to make it feel more ordinary for your team. This is what will allow your business to keep its fingers on the pulse of what consumers want next.
If you need an example of what innovation culture looks like, check out KalpTree Energy’s approach. The energy startup’s leaders populated the company with ambitious employees who understand the value of failure when it comes to innovation. The company also instituted an approach to product development that prioritizes collaboration and persistence, recognizing the need to encourage regular, open communication and determination even (or especially) when faced with failure.
2. Expand your definition of competition
Your traditional peers are no longer your only competition. You need to look at competitors in front of you, behind you, and around you. If you’re in the pharmaceutical industry, for instance, it’s not enough to look at Pfizer and Merck. You also need to look at competitors moving into healthcare, specifically tech giants such as Apple, Microsoft and Amazon.
As more industries move to digital, it will also be important to keep up with disrupters and influencers — not only in your industry, but also in adjacent extreme areas. As digital continues to break down barriers, your particular sector could quickly become fair game for anyone with the vision and knack for innovation.
3. Get closer to your customers
To be a leader in innovation, you need to be more like Kim Kardashian. That might sound odd, but take a moment to consider it: with more than 259 million followers on Instagram alone, the ubiquitous Skims shapewear founder has a direct line to her customers and brand advocates. Apart from this being a clear sales pipeline, that close connection allows her to quickly tap into what her audience wants and helps her develop new products she knows will be a hit.
While any other brand isn’t likely to get millions of Instagram followers and its own TV show, it’s that type of close relationship that you should strive for, using first-party customer data and analytics. By tracking the customer journey and taking advantage of the latest technology (such as AI and big data), you can go beyond creating products that your audience needs right now and start pursuing what your customers are wishing for.
4. Embrace the minimum viable product
Successful innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. To create a new product that captures the imagination of consumers, you need to make those consumers an active part of the process. That means finding a way to put a product out into the world early. That way, you can get a temperature check on it before you invest too much time and energy into what might turn out to be a dead end.
This is where an MVP comes in. When Dropbox CEO Drew Houston wanted to make sure that his vision for a cloud-storage solution was a product that people would actually want, he decided first to create a video. This video showed off the major features of what his final product would look like and was geared specifically to catch the attention of early adopters. It generated a lot of interest and led thousands of people to sign up as potential beta testers. This was how the company knew it had a hit on its hands.
Create something that shows off the core features of your vision to clients, potential customers, or to the world at large. Listen to consumer feedback, iterate on what you hear and don’t hesitate to pivot or go back to the drawing board if necessary.
The past two years have shown just how necessary innovation is both for consumers and businesses. If you want to ensure that your business will continue to grow long into the future, then it’s crucial to make innovation a core part of it going forward.