Innovating on the Cheap

by Paul Sloane

Innovation on the CheapThe problem is the recession. It is hurting businesses large and small. The answer is innovation. Innovation can help you to cut costs, improve margins, retain customers, acquire new customers, gain market share and ultimately to survive. But when you are cutting costs and squeezing resources in all areas how can you find the people, time and money for innovation? Experiments are not guaranteed to succeed so it can look wasteful to fund large innovation projects.

Here are five tips to help you innovate on slender means:

1. Tell people that you want their ideas. Tell your staff, tell your customers and tell your suppliers that you want ideas that will help streamline the business, improve service, cut costs or delight customers. If you do not have an effective suggestions scheme then set one up. Listen to all suggestions with an open mind and evaluate them constructively.

2. Allocate a budget for innovation. You do not get innovation for free. You have to allocate time, people and money but you do not have to be extravagant. The most important thing is to give people some time to generate, evaluate, select and test ideas. Google famously gives all employees one a day a week for this sort of activity. You do not have to be so generous – maybe one afternoon a month will suffice. However you do it you have to create some slack for people to brainstorm and to experiment.

3. Move rapidly to prototypes. Once you have selected a promising idea move rapidly to building a model that you can show to people and review. This might be built in play dough, it might be a software mock-up, it might be a role play of a new service. Once you show it to selected customers or other stakeholders you can quickly get useful feedback.

4. Kill the losers. Set standards for innovations – e.g. Can we make money at this? Is there a real need? Can we make it work? Can we win with this? If the answers are negative then be prepared to cancel the project and move onto something else. Resources are limited and should only be devoted to potential winners.

5. Pinch other people’s ideas. A cheap way to innovate is to copy ideas from other industries or other places and to try them in your business. What are they doing in Singapore or Holland or California to solve this kind of problem? What can you copy that is new for you but tested elsewhere?

Make innovation a priority, put it onto people’s objectives, add it to your balanced scorecard. You have to make the current model work better and at the same time find ways to replace it with something better. Continuous innovation is very demanding – but it is the best way to survive.

Paul SloanePaul 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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