You Can Teach Old Dogs New Tricks — With Innovation

Innovation means different things to different companies. For Mars Inc., it means rethinking the textures, colors, and flavors of its 75-year-old M&M’s. For its chief competitor, The Hershey Company, innovation looks like partnering with Millennial marketing students to dress up a current product and relaunch it for a new audience. For your company, it could be a new idea, a new product, or a new way of doing something.

But one thing is certain: If your company isn’t innovating, all of its products or services eventually become commodities.

When that happens, you have no margin left to spend on research and development, new product initiatives, or anything else that could provide a competitive advantage. Then, your customers will start playing you against the competition, and it’s just a race to the bottom for further price concessions.

By that point, you’re left with reducing costs, overhead, or profit — you’re now in a death spiral toward that going-out-of-business curve.

So how, exactly, do you spark new innovation at a company? What’s more, how do you do it at an already established business?

1. Make innovation a priority

Go to the source of innovation, and make it a priority with your employees. I’m talking all employees, not just a select few. From the plant floor to the executive door, encourage the entire organization to offer ideas to improve products and services.

At Miller Ingenuity, innovation is one of our core values, so much so that we tie innovation to our staff’s performance appraisals. Determine a means to best measure innovation in your industry and your company, and incentivize innovative thought by making it part of the quarterly review process.

2. Hire an innovation expert

Contrary to popular belief, everyone is creative. The key is to understand how to unlock that creativity, and that’s where an innovation expert comes into play. Hire one as a consultant to learn how to encourage creativity and innovation throughout the organization.

Work with this professional concerning how to train staff in the principles and practices of creativity. If you restrict training to only product development teams, you miss out on the opportunity to tap into the energy of the rest of your employees. Use this expert as an organizational tool, not a departmental one.

3. Provide the time to innovate

It isn’t always enough to set the expectation to innovate. You must provide the staff the time — or at least the parameters — for innovation. At Miller, we expect employees to spend 20 percent of their time innovating and brainstorming new ideas. Initially, that meant hiring extra people to ensure our staff didn’t feel the pressure of getting their “regular” work done in 80 percent of the time.

4. Provide the space to innovate

Asking employees to innovate and brainstorm without providing a space to do it in can squelch creativity. Once you’ve established the practice of innovation, devote a location within your organization where they can meet regularly and without interruption.

Our 60-year-old company built what we call the “Creation Station,” a high-tech innovation space designed to facilitate creative thought. Building the space served two purposes: to provide a world-class space in which to innovate and to show our employees how serious we were about the process. Of course, we were well down the road of making innovation part of our DNA before we built the space, and I recommend you do the same to accelerate the process.

5. Celebrate, recognize, and reward innovation

Find ways to celebrate and recognize innovation every chance you get. It has a way of changing workplace culture for the better and reinforcing positive behaviors. Our company gives cash awards for innovation, and then we have a professional photo taken of the staff for a half-page ad in our local newspaper detailing the innovation.

You may decide to go with an awards ceremony or an informal celebration. Even a celebratory email or article in the company newsletter can encourage continued creative thought. Just make sure you’re recognizing staff effort.

6. Fight fear and resistance

Do you remember Woolworth’s, the five-and-dime retailer? No? That’s because it was out-innovated by Walmart and went belly up. I’d be willing to bet it was because it stayed in its comfort zone until there was nothing left to do but close up shop.

At my company, we recently launched a high-tech product centered around the Internet of Things — it’s unlike anything we’ve ever done. After all, Miller has been around for more than 60 years. Yet the biggest risk isn’t a technical one; it’s organizational. People fear what they don’t understand, and they’ll kill a project they’re afraid of. You have to get out in front of that and fight the fear and resistance early and often.

Innovation is no longer an option; it’s a necessity. As you move your business toward more innovative thought, be prepared for some pushback. Also, be ready to restructure your organization and even cut people loose if you have to. You need to surround new developments with people who believe in innovation. Otherwise, you’ll be left with those who’ll do little more than look for flaws.

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Steve Blue is President and CEO of Miller Ingenuity. He is nationally recognized business transformation expert who provides insight for leading media and industry outlets, including FOX, BusinessWeek, Forbes, The Huffington Post, Entrepreneur Magazine, AMA, Europe Business Review, and The Wall Street Journal. His insights have led many media outlets to refer to him as one of America’s Leading Mid-Market CEOs

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