Personal Innovation – Profiting from Uncertainty

by Paul Sloane

How can you ensure that in turbulent times you not only survive the organizational restructuring but actually benefit by it? Most businesses are having to change not once but over and over in order to meet the challenges of recession, competition and technology convergence. Some changes are all about cutting costs, although they may be called something else. Others are about realigning the business to cope with new opportunities. Either way it can be a bloody affair, littered with victims and casualties. How can you maximize your chances in the change maelstrom? One way is to take a positive approach to change and to be seen as an innovative go-getter who will help make the re-organization a success. Here is how:

1. Adopt a positive attitude

  • Don’t be cynical about change. Don’t assume the worst. Don’t believe and repeat rumours about management conspiracies to do down the workforce. Change is inevitable for every organization so it is time to start liking it. Change means new opportunities, new responsibilities, new things to learn and do. People who are positive about new challenges are more likely to be given them. People who are resistant to change and reluctant to adapt are the first to be culled.

2. Become a change agent

  • Make suggestions. Introduce ideas and recommendations. Look for ways in which your department could bring in new products, business processes or partnerships. Ask yourself – is there a better way to meet the needs of our customers? Anticipate trends and suggest ways of changing the department to exploit new opportunities and new technologies.

3. Listen to customers

  • Where can you find the ideas for change? One source is customers. In your dealings with clients you should make a point of asking how your product or service could be improved. What do they like and dislike about your offering? How are their business needs changing? What will they need in the future? Even better than asking them is to study how they use your product or service. What difficulties do they encounter? How could you alleviate the problems and make their life easier? Do they use your product or service in conjunction with others? Could you co-operate with another company or combine your product with others to bring an innovation to market?

4. Watch the competition

  • Keep an eye on what they are doing and any innovations they introduce. Ask customers what other suppliers are doing that is smart and new. Study their initiatives and see what works. Suggest ways in which you can not just match the competition but leapfrog them.
  • A copy-machine operator at Kinko’s, a major chain of outlets providing copying and document services, noticed that customer demand for copying dropped off in December. People were too pre-occupied with Christmas presents to do much copying for the office. So he came up with a creative idea. Why not allow customers to use Kinko’s colour copying and binding facilities to create their own customized calendars using their personal photos for each of the months? He prototyped the idea in the store and it proved popular — people could create personalized gifts of calendars featuring favorite family photos. The operator phoned the founder and CEO of Kinko’s, Paul Orfalea, and explained the idea. Orfalea was so excited by it that he rushed it out as a service in all outlets. It was very successful and a new product — custom calendars – and a new revenue stream were created.

5. Be sensitive to office politics

  • For most ideas it is best to talk them through with colleagues in your department and in other areas to test their workability before you speak to your manager. That way you have checked out the concept, cleared some obvious objections and gained feedback before you propose it. It will sound better thought out. However, there are some ideas that are so sensitive that it would be silly to bat them around the office before proposing them. You have to choose your moments carefully. Often you can prepare the ground by describing the size of the problem and agreeing how pressing it is before you introduce your idea. Catch the boss when he or she is most receptive. Sometimes it is best to introduce your big idea outside the hurly burly of the office. If you can buttonhole the director in the bar or the car park you may have a better chance of a good hearing.

6. Don’t insist on the glory

  • If you spark an idea and then other people adapt and improve it then that is fine. By letting go you have a better chance of it being adopted than if you insist on driving every aspect of the initiative because it ‘was your idea in the first place.’ Sometimes the cleverest tactic is to let your boss take it over as his or her idea. People will still know that you were the one who planted the seed.

7. Be prepared for rejection

  • Most managers are analytical and critical. They are good at finding fault with other people’s ideas. The more radical your proposal the more likely it is that people will feel uncomfortable with it. Propose it carefully. Lay it out in a logical way and explain the benefits. But if your boss disagrees then don’t fall out over it and don’t bypass him. Let it lie fallow for a while. I once worked for a CEO who would tear new ideas to shreds and ridicule them. But the next day he would often say, “I was thinking about that idea of yours and I can see a way to make it work.” His initial reaction was to oppose an idea just to test it. But once the germ of the idea was in his head he could find ways to develop it. Above all don’t stop bringing forward ideas because the first few are rejected.

Conclusion

Change means winners and losers. If you can be known as someone who is creative, innovative and a driver of change then the chances are that you will emerge a winner. Not only will you survive the change but you will be given the responsibility of making part of it a reality.


Paul Sloane writes, speaks and leads workshops on creativity, innovation and leadership. He is the author of The Innovative Leader published by Kogan-Page.

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