In the past, when most organisations could rely on a few innovations a year, innovation was considered to be only the role of a Research & Development department. Now, when your organisation is more complex, employees have more ideas, and the external environment is changing so fast, innovation is everybody’s responsibility. If you’re running your own business, of course this has always been the case!
Sometimes innovation is forced on you because of outside factors – like digital music destroying the CD industry, Uber tackling the taxi industry, and even review sites like TripAdvisor changing every hospitality business. But why wait until somebody else changes your business? It’s far better to be proactive and look for ways to change it yourself.
You could just sit around and wait for magic moments of insight, but that could take a long time! A better approach is to “seed” ideas by asking provocative questions.
Involve your team.
Don’t just do this yourself, either – involve everybody in your team. In fact, this is where your team members shine, because they look at things in different ways. They come from different backgrounds, have different skills, are different ages, follow different trends, tolerate (or don’t tolerate) different things, and so on. They often see things others can’t see and make connections others don’t make.
Here are fifteen questions you can ask to spark innovation in your business.
Work more closely with customers
Your customers and clients are your best marketing experts, because they already know why customers buy from you! What’s more, they now have more influence than ever before, so it just makes sense to involve them more in your business. For example:
- What if they trusted us more? If you’re in an industry with a poor reputation, how can you build trust?
- How can we remove intermediaries? Can you reach customers directly, even if it means risking relationships with your traditional “middle men”?
- How can we connect customers to each other? Don’t only think of customers connecting with you; also give them ways to connect with each other – by hosting online forums, discussion groups, and support networks.
- What if we could help customers sell on our behalf? Your best customers and clients want to promote you to their network. What are you doing to help them? Do you pay a referral fee, send thank-you gifts for referrals, or run customer events and ask them to bring a friend?
- What if we could help our competition sell more? Amazon.com sells books at retail prices, but also promotes independent book shops selling the same book for a lower price. Some customers will choose the cheaper option, but it’s still better for Amazon.com to have them as a potential customer.
Learn from other organisations
You might be able to tap into things other people are doing – even outside your industry. For example:
- What are other industries doing? When Belinda Yabsley created the first Mercedes-Benz Airport Express in Australia, she turned to the hotel industry, not the car industry, for inspiration. How can you tap into other industries?
- What is the rest of the world doing? You might be doing the best you can, but what can you learn from the best in the world? Keep in mind that “world” means anybody outside your current scope of operations. For example, if you work in local government, the “world” can be as near as your neighbouring local council or as far as South America.
- What are trendy start-up companies and entrepreneurs doing? Start-up companies don’t have the baggage of experienced organisations, and are more likely to take risks by trying new things. What are they doing that you can adopt?
Observe consumer behaviour
Finally, watch what consumers in general (not just your own customers and clients) are doing. The best ideas might come from completely unexpected places, and they won’t necessarily need a huge investment of time and money. For example:
- What are the young people doing nowadays? What are the latest trends, memes, and “hot” things from popular culture? They might seem superficial and shallow, but can they spark ideas?
- What trends can we leverage? Russia’s Alfa-Bank rewards customers who exercise by giving them a higher interest rate on their deposits. Can you tap into trends and fashions – even outside your industry?
- What old ideas could we use again? Edward de Bono once suggested that a fruitful way to find new ideas was to trawl through lapsed patents, looking for ideas that failed because they were before their time. Your older team members in particular might be able to share discarded ideas from decades ago that could be useful now.
- What’s personal that could be professional? Smartphones and tablets were personal devices before they became work devices; Facebook is for personal use but can be used to make professional connections; business class air travel grew out of a need to provide something more affordable than first class luxury travel. What is happening in personal lives that you could use in your organisation?
- What’s so funny? In the 1990s, Japanese inventor Kenji Kawakami coined the term “Chindogu” to describe things that are “not exactly useful, but somehow not altogether useless”. Although it was done for fun, some of these “unuseless inventions” turned out to be useful products – such as the selfie stick.
- What if this was more social? How can you tap into the power of social networks for ideas, leads, referrals, feedback, and support?
- What if this was more local? Do your systems unnecessarily involve “head office” or other parts of the hierarchy? As a result, are they too broad, too generic, too convoluted, or missing out on local knowledge?
What will you do differently?
If you ask just one question a week – for example, at your weekly staff meeting, or just privately for yourself – you’ll be way ahead of most businesses. More importantly, you’ll be creating an innovation mindset in yourself and your team – and that will help to future-proof your business.
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