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Lead Your Team Strategy

How to Cultivate Innovation in Real Time

Liz Pearce, CEO of Liquid Planner, contributed this article to BusinessNewsDaily's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

In a world where nothing is ever really new, what does innovation mean? It could be a product that the world has never seen before, or it could mean that you and your team have never done it before. Does it have to be economically viable, or can it be an art form?

Here are a couple definitions of innovation:
From Merriam-Webster's online dictionary:
1: The introduction of something new; 2: a new idea, method, or device: novelty

From a BusinessDictionary.com:
The process of translating an idea or invention into a good or service that creates value or for which customers will pay. To be called an innovation, an idea must be replicable at an economical cost and must satisfy a specific need.

Innovation can happen when you have a team that knows how to pluck the best ideas from the world around it, and then use those ideas to move a business forward.

Here's my top 5 list of how we encourage and practice innovation at LiquidPlanner.

Hire for values and curiosity over experience
You can't cultivate innovation without the right people. Look for the following characteristics.

  • People who are intellectually curious.
    Are you always striving to know more? Do answers to questions lead to more questions? Select candidates who ask questions beyond the information on your company website and probe into deeper issues related to: the company's vision and values, clients and customers, the culture and ways of doing business better. This type of candidate is likely to continue to look for answers once they are in the job.
  • People who can give examples of times they've taken risks.
    People who have a tendency to bend or outright break the rules are often the most innovative (as long as they use good judgment when deciding whichrules to break). We look for people who have worked at small companies, run their own businesses and changed jobs for greater challenges and opportunity. We seek people who have stories of experimenting with new ventures and projects — whether in a job or on their own time. If your team isn't willing to step out of their comfort zone or they resist challenging best practices, innovation doesn't stand a chance.

Promote challenge and change

  • Foster an environment that values challenging ideas.
    Your teams should feel free to challenge ongoing courses of action and decisions in order to help the company further its business goals and best serve clients. This is important work that belongs to every team member. If everyone sits around a meeting nodding in agreement when they're really thinking "That's a terrible idea!" you're missing opportunities to improve and innovate. One of our core values is "Have the courage to change." It's important that we always challenge ourselves to do the absolute best for our customers even if that requires (sometimes difficult) changes.
  • Encourage every challenge to be accompanied by a better idea or solution.
    Let's not rush tooquickly to challenge, though. It's easy to poke holes in something, but much harder to come up with a better proposal. Encourage team members to think critically about their challenges, including bringing their own ideas and proposals to the conversation. Any person can tear down progress. The best team members bring bricks to help build something.

Always be learning

  • Encourage cross-learning.
    Successful innovators make connections from different aspects of the world around them. To make those connections, you need to seek out new experiences. Read a work of fiction, listen to a TED talk, and go to a networking event where you don't know anyone. Ask yourself, "What can I learn from other industries that I can twist and apply to my own?"
  • Learning comes through example, not policy.
    Leaders demonstrate how they do this in their own work and through their own contributions. Share references you've drawn from and links to articles that inspire you. Drop reading material on people's desks, or give employees free reign to buy any book they want that will help them in their job. Give people permission and encouragement to innovate through learning.

Crowd source innovation

  • Get detailed customer feedback.
    We're a fairly small company serving a large group of customers, most of whom use our product every day. The odds are pretty good that some of them have brilliant ideas for how we could improve. The trick is to get them to share the ideas with us. We spend considerable time listening to customer perspectives on what we're doing, and then synthesizing those ideas. Think about ways to involve your customers and partners in designing new solutions for their business. We've found that it's a win-win.
  • Where to start.
    There are tools out there that can help companies harness customers' ideas in an organized way — from getting usage information to organizing feedback. Tools such as Qualaroo, UserTesting.com and IdeaScale let you personalize how you receive your information — in a small or large scale way. If you're looking for a flash of insight, something that sparks fuel for the next idea, don't waste any time connecting with the people who can give you fast feedback.

Permission to take risks, make mistakes

From early on in the life of the company, our management team made a pact to forgive each other's mistakes. We knew that despite our most valiant efforts, foul-ups would be inevitable as we set out into unknown territory. Likewise, if your team members fear retribution for taking smart chances, progress will slow down. When good intentions don't yield good results, look for proactive ways to analyze what went wrong and how to make it better. Don't punish the failure. Recognize the effort and reward people who learn from mistakes and improve over time.

There's no magic formula for innovation in business. Leaders who encourage and practice innovation shift their odds in the right direction.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher.

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