• Business planning and strategy

How to make your company more innovative

Whether it’s a groundbreaking product or a new service no one ever thought of until everyone wanted it, innovation can give any small business a competitive edge. But coming up with new ideas is easier said than done. How can you make your business more innovative? Try these tips.

Get everyone in the company involved. Marketers, graphic designers and other “creative” types are used to being called on to innovate—which sometimes leads to stale ideas. Don’t limit innovation to key execs or the “usual suspects.” Bringing different departments together sparks innovation, as people rub elbows with others they don’t normally come in contact with. Some of the most innovative ideas may come from your frontline employees—after all, they’re the ones who engage with your customers, product or service every day.

Begin with your customers. Don’t innovate for innovations’ sake. You can get really sidetracked if you come up with what you think is a great idea for a better widget without ever considering whether customers want a better widget. Conduct customer surveys, focus groups and market research to find customer pain points and dissatisfactions. Listen to what customers are saying on social media to get insights into what they want. Figure out what gaps exist in their lives that your products or services could fill, or how you could innovate to serve customers better.

Capture all your ideas.  Make sure to record the results of your brainstorming sessions and other innovation efforts. You can do this by having everyone write on Post-It notes or whiteboards, having someone record each session on video, taking pictures of whiteboards and notes with smartphones and uploading them, or just having someone take notes (although if your session is very freewheeling, this might result in a lot of missed data). You never know when the “big idea” will come from something you didn’t pay attention to at the time, so being able to go back and review ideas is very valuable.

Pick your battles. You might come up with a dozen cool innovations, but can you afford to work on all of them at once? If you’re like most small business owners, probably not. Once you’ve got some ideas in place, assign people to assess their feasibility, cost and possible rewards. Don’t limit yourself to one innovation—trying several gives you a better chance at success—but focus wisely. Put some of your resources toward the low-hanging fruit that will pay off immediately, and some toward the big-picture goal that might take a while to come to market.

Assign ownership and execute. People get excited about new ideas, but without a champion to see them through, ideas often die on the vine after the initial glow of the brainstorming session fades. Make sure each innovation has someone responsible for planning next steps and following through on action items. Regularly assess your progress toward innovation goals and whether they’re worth pursuing or whether it’s time to stop.

Rieva Lesonsky is CEO of GrowBiz Media, a media and custom content company focusing on small business and entrepreneurship. Follow Rieva at Twitter.com/Rieva and visit her website, SmallBizDaily.com.