Having entrepreneurs within a company is the dream for most business owners. These are employees who will undertake something new, without being asked to do so. They are innovative and creative – they are people who can transform an idea into a profitable venture for your business. They strike the perfect balance – act like entrepreneurs, but they work for you.
But as any business manager will know, such individual entrepreneurs are a rarity, however, this needn’t be the case. Every employee can become more creative and entrepreneurial if their company adopts a different approach to their development and cultivates a culture where innovation and creative thinking is encouraged and supported.
One of the main problems facing many UK businesses is that they have lost sight of the importance of fostering creative thinking and innovation. In doing so, they are placing their business at risk and giving the competition a serious advantage.
We can’t lose sight of the fact that the economic crisis has turned many offices into high pressured working environments, where employee engagement and confidence has been eroded. Is such businesses energy, creativity and innovative thinking has been lost.
However, what has also emerged is a blame culture where business people are blaming their current poor business performance solely on the recession and external factors. But this is a bit like complaining that you are wet because it’s raining. How about wearing a raincoat? Businesses have a duty to prepare for the future upturn and ramp up their competitiveness.
The actual ‘raincoat’ for business is not act in defence; it is to attack. Sun Tzu in the sixth century said that you may survive though defence but you can only win by attacking. One of the oddest paradoxes of the business world is how many business owners never even see themselves in a competitive situation. Absurd! Competition in so many forms is ever present and can never be ignored.
So what can businesses do to be more competitive? It is in times of adversity that some of the greatest innovations have appeared and in today’s straightened times there is a healthy pressure to differentiate, become more competitive and establish more intrinsic value in the organisation. Does this come about by exhortations by the CEO or by establishing a culture of freedom to think and innovate? It may be the former but it must be the latter.
It is down to business managers and the HR department also to establish a culture where intellectual power within the company is harnessed to the betterment of innovation and in so doing equals motivation, productivity and profits. An energised workforce is an effective and content one.
Most people in an organisation have enough sight of what is going on to be able to contribute to innovation. However, we are not talking just about suggestion boxes. I am referring to special projects and cross functional work groups to establish innovation in products, service and operations.
Managers need to make it clear that this is not a one off; to create sustained motivation, people must feel valued. Leadership has to be consistent and authentic in the way that it empowers teams to be creative.
Here are some ways of encouraging creativity and innovation:
1. Understand and know what the market wants, but know more about what your competitors are offering and how they behave.
Competitors of all kinds are the minimum benchmark for which to aim. Equalling the value of competitive offerings is rarely going to suffice – always ensure you are moving to stay ahead. Look at every weakness in competitor offerings and operations and use advanced brain storming tools such as ‘meta planning’ to develop and refine the winning concepts.
2. Empower people to implement their innovations.
3. Make it clear that a business must always develop its products and services.
NEVER stand still. Even those lucky enough to have patent or intellectual property protection must seek to acquire more advantages. If in any doubt about this then compare the fortunes of General Motors to Honda in the past decade.
4. The customer is always a good start point for innovative thinking and should be a central focus for the whole business.
The customer and their relationship is central to business success. Do not rush to copy some competitors’ ways of caring for customers (e.g. automated telephone services!). Develop new ways to engage with customers in a way that customers want. They will repay you over and over. This is how Virgin Atlantic took so much business away from the likes of British Airways
5. Treat internal employees as customers and friends.
The best innovation can come from co-operation between employees – this is an effective way of bringing out entrepreneurs. Identify and appoint innovation ‘champions’ around the business. These people will be the leaders on innovation development and manage the process. They must drive the culture.
6. Any function has scope for innovation – always.
HR, finance, customers service, manufacturing, legal, they all must innovate and an innovation culture that embraces all the functions will be a better joined up organisation.
7. Lead people to look externally for inspiration and don’t be afraid to steal other people’s ideas.
Some of the best ideas and simplest innovations are from businesses that already have had such a drive or survived times of stress. Copy best practice. Sometimes copying is the best route. However, copy it, and then improve it. Look at how the Japanese destroyed the UK motorcycle industry, they copied the UK and made the products better.
8. Managers should promote external focus from all departments.
Many businesses suffer from internalism and parochialism. They stunt growth, innovation and sap energy. Assume that your business could be killed off by new entrants to the market or new innovations – people or technology based. Get people to think the un thinkable, develop thinking around scenarios that may seem unrealistic. Remember, in 2007 the idea that several banks would fail was unthinkable.
9. Lastly, companies must look forward, not back all the time.
Create a ‘can do’ rather than ‘can’t do’ culture. There are ‘no but’s’; only ‘yes and’
In the end, innovation is an attitude of mind. It can be developed and sustained through consistent behaviours in the business. The value is enormous and in truth no one has a choice in the matter. Everyone must adapt, change and innovate and we can all become entrepreneurs.
Empowering employees to be innovative and creative, and encouraging a ‘can do’ attitude can reap rewards for everyone – whether monetary or reward based – and companies that do this are more likely to survive the recession. The success of businesses like the John Lewis Partnership where its 81,000 ‘partners’ own two of the UK’s leading retail businesses – John Lewis and Waitrose – shows what can be achieved when a business is powered by its people.
Stephen Archer, Director of business consultancy, Spring Partnerships