Threads #6: Remaining innovative in the face of day-to-day operations

Guest blog: Tips from founders, to founders, on how to maintain your current operations while at the same time innovating for tomorrow
12th December 2017

Business growth is usually about clever innovation – building new products or services that allow you to attract new customers and grow your market. When you first start up this is usually your only concern. But what happens when you’re up and running and need to juggle keeping your current business prospering while at the same time innovating for growth in the future?

It’s tempting to focus just on current business – it’s already up and running and it’s what pays the bills – but you must also make that investment of time needed to develop what comes next. How do you balance these two competing demands and avoid being drawn back again and again into the day-to-day?

“Expose engineers to the pain points of your customers”

 

Here are some tips from the spring series of Threads’ meetups, helping you to get the balance right for your business:

How you innovate will evolve and change as you grow. Think about what innovation your business needs to do during each phase of its growth and choose appropriate strategies to make it happen.

Build good communications between customer-facing teams and those in engineering. Aim for a balance of control and open dialogue. Mix things up and move people around.

Expose engineers to the pain points of your customers, with the filter of your business development process removed, as it may otherwise skew the solutions they devise.

Aim to solve things that seem unsolvable. Allocate a number of days per month to the team and make this a formal, recognised and internal deliverable.

An inter-team ‘race’ towards innovation can promote healthy competition and the creation of a range of different ideas to solve a problem.

Build up a war chest of innovation. Just because customers or competitors don’t seem to innovate, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t. Businesses are more likely to struggle because they did too little innovation rather than too much, so keep the thermostat of innovation warm.

If you experience innovation feast:famine, then set aside a defined resource level and budget that’s firewalled from the day-to-day operation. This helps towards a steady state of innovation.

“Accept that innovation can have a high failure rate”

 

Continuous improvement is rearward-looking, with incremental changes and improvements. Innovation is forward-looking, it’s about throwing away the past and working backwards from the future.

Those innovating in the CTO office or in ‘skunk works’ are often seen as having all the fun, while others are bringing home the bacon. Empower all your people to innovate, whether it be strategic or day-to-day.

Regularly broadcast that innovation is a good thing that everyone should be doing. Google’s ‘20% time’ worked because it made innovation part of everyone’s daily habit. Find a way to capture the informal innovation that people do in their spare time at work.

For professional services firms, it’s the brilliance of your engineers that you’re selling; so empower them to talk to customers. They can make awesome sales weapons. This works particularly well in niche high-value markets.

Ideas can be cheap. It’s getting them validated, executed and then scaled that brings increasing levels of cost, and reward.

“Think about who you recognise for the innovation and how you value them”

 

Much of innovation is a refinement and optimisation exercise. True ‘revolution’ moments tend to happen in a flash. Accept that it’s often 1% innovation, 99% perspiration.

Accept that innovation can have a high failure rate.

Foster a culture of ambient innovation, where day-to-day innovation on a small scale is encouraged and celebrated. Define strategic and tactical objectives, and encourage targeted innovation that leads towards them.

While innovation can seem an intrinsically good thing, the balance between innovation, delivery and operations needs to be controlled to match the current stage and state of the business.

Think about who you recognise for the innovation and how you value them. The originator of the idea may be recognised and valued differently from the executor.

Consider whether your innovators build out the resulting product and its revenue. Some will find this appealing and want to follow the product or spin-out. For others, it’s about delivering a repeatable creative and tactical problem-solving process.

Businesses that have become compartmentalised can find it hard to innovate across the silos. Innovation can suffer as structure is added to support growth, so look for ways to cut across the whole business.

Design services firms may hit a stage in their growth, usually around 50 or 60 staff, when it’s better to spin out new products and services than to expand headcount. At this point, they may need a new layer of structure to see them through to 100+ staff.

When the originators of high-value innovation follow it into a startup or spin-out company, treat them as role models and celebrate their success.

Product-focused businesses may experience a tension between delivering a product – for lower costs and higher efficiency – and innovation. This tension needs to be acknowledged and carefully managed.

Patents are a by-product of innovation. They arise from the development of an idea and not just from the idea itself, so wait to patent a new idea until you’ve worked out where it may lead.

Be aware that customers and the market may not be ready for radical change or innovation.

Threads meetups are a way for founders and department heads of technology companies to share learning, experiences and conundrums. These roundtable discussions unpack topics around leadership, business and operations. Most people find at least one improvement to take away and implement.

Threads is usually held at 6.30 – 8.30pm on the first Wednesday of each month. To RSVP to the next meetup, head to the Threads South West meetup page

Keep an eye out for more Threads guest blogs coming to TechSPARK soon.