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Productivity

How to build a culture of innovation

Jeff Haden
Business Journalist

Jeff Haden is a bestselling ghostwriter, speaker, Inc. Magazine contributing editor, and LinkedIn Influencer

Jeff Haden
Business Journalist

Jeff Haden is a bestselling ghostwriter, speaker, Inc. Magazine contributing editor, and LinkedIn Influencer

Innovation is the aim of the game for many small businesses, but is it an inherent quality, or can it be built?

woman sat on floor with notepad and pen

Innovation. We all want to be more innovative, but trying to be innovative – right here, right now, in this moment – feels, least for most people, nearly impossible.

Don't believe me? Let’s try it. Let’s be innovative. Let’s think of an amazingly disruptive innovation. Go!

How did that work out for you? (Don't feel bad. I gave up before you did.) 

Most of us don't have a "creativity switch" we can turn on and off at will. Most of our employees don't either. Gathering your team in a room and saying, "We really need some innovative ideas, what do you have?" rarely works – unless you take the right approach.

One great way to foster innovation – and build a culture of innovation in your small business – is to implement a “change one thing” policy.

Here’s how it works:

1. Make two-person teams

Why teams? You want people to work together. If possible, create teams made up of employees from different operational areas; try to pair up people who normally don’t work together. 

2. Ask one question

"If you could change one thing that makes it hard to serve our customers, or would give them something they have been asking for, what would that be… and how would you do it?"

Tell them they have 10 minutes to come up with as many changes as they can.

3. Give them more time if they ask

Often your employees will want more time – once they get rolling they’ll think up a number of things they want to change. And that’s okay, your goal is just to come up with as many possibilities as you can. The primary outtake for your staff is that you want people to share their ideas, and you’re willing to invest whatever time is necessary into getting those ideas.

In short, if you want your company to embrace a culture of innovation, you have to prove you truly want your employees to be innovative.

4. Create a whiteboard grid

Some ideas will be cheap and easy to implement. Others won’t be easy, but will have a major impact. Make a graph with two axes: X for how easy an idea is to implement, Y for the degree of impact the idea may have.

You’ll wind up with four major quadrants: easy to implement/high impact, easy to implement/low impact, hard to implement/high impact, and hard to implement/low impact.

5. Each team writes down their most important change

Then explain your whiteboard grid and ask each team to place their Post-It note in the appropriate quadrant.

Keep in mind some teams will assume their change will have a tremendous impact, even if in reality it will not. That’s okay, because then as a group you will… 

6. Discuss each idea

A few changes might be duplicates. Some might be unusual. Some may make little operational or financial sense. Some may apply only to one customer.

Again, that’s okay.  The best part of this process is the discussion. Do your best to let the group discuss, dissect, and evaluate each change. Facilitate discussion instead of leading discussion.

And don’t reject changes out of hand. Instead of judging, ask, “What is the best way to do that?” Ask, “What other things would we need to change to make sure that works?” Give the ideas room to breathe – and most importantly, give your employees the latitude to freely share their thoughts and ideas. 

When you do, the spirit of innovation will be infectious. 

7. Choose easy to implement/high impact changes

And then make those changes. When you do, you prove you're willing to listen. You prove you're willing to change.

And most importantly, you prove “innovate” really is a verb.

8. Then rinse and repeat

Once you run out of changes to implement, hold another session. Come up with more changes. And make those changes, too.

But it’s not necessary to wait for a formal meeting. Once you’ve begun to build a culture of innovation, and your employees begin to trust your sincerity with listening to, and acting on, their suggestions, start talking to people one-on-one. If a process is failing, stop by an employee’s desk and say, “This isn’t working as well as it could… do you have any ideas on how we can fix it?” If a customer is dissatisfied ask, if they have any ideas for how you can rebuild the relationship.

In short, ask for help. When you do, you not only get the help you need, in the process you show vulnerability and a willingness to listen – which, by the way, are all qualities of a great leader and build mutual respect.

And then an awesome thing will start to happen. When you prove you’re listening and acting on what you hear, your employees will bring their great ideas to you.

A culture of innovation is important for a modern business.

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