A man wearing glasses and headphones considers the contents of his laptop screen with one hand on his chin. In his other hand is a pen, held above an open notebook.
Innovation, like many other skills, can be learned, and many online courses exist for the purpose of cultivating traits like creativity and skills like idea generation. — Getty Images/fizkes

Business owners who put all the pressure to innovate on themselves miss out on proven ways to generate new products, services and processes needed to stay ahead of the competition. Making your company more innovative starts with viewing innovation as a function of the business, just like accounting or manufacturing. Once a culture of innovation is established, you can turn to tactics. Several experts interviewed by CO— offered specific suggestions.

Let your employees loose

“It is always better to have more minds for innovation than just one, no matter how smart the owner,” said Bart Barthelemy, founding director of the Wright Brothers Institute and author of the new guidebook, "Collaborative Innovation."

Successful small business owners are often expert innovators, or sales-oriented rainmakers or conductors with a keen eye for operations—but never all three. Regardless, when it comes to innovating, smart entrepreneurs will take inspiration from anyone.

Wise leaders also recognize the one thing they never have enough of: time.

“While I think most small business owners desire to foster innovation, doing so takes an incredible amount of that precious commodity,” said Shaun Limbers, associate director for the Baugh Center for Entrepreneurship and Free Enterprise at Baylor University.

“Innovation is a team sport, so the most important step is to identify people in the company who can regularly engage in innovation sessions,” said Rebeca Hwang, a professor of practice at Arizona State University’s Thunderbird School of Global Management and leader of the Global Center for Family Business and Entrepreneurship.

Get a fresh perspective

Big or small, innovations involve solving problems and challenges, whether with products or services, internal systems and processes or changes in the marketplace. But people in a company often get stuck in silos, unable to envision much beyond their area of expertise and routinely excluded from idea generation. Hwang’s suggestions:

  • Rotate employees to different roles so they gain a broader understanding of the company’s challenges and opportunities.
  • Have company leaders take a day each month to work in someone else’s shoes.
  • Even the owner—especially the owner—should get her hands dirty on the factory floor, or perhaps answer customer service calls now and then.

People outside the company can offer inspiration, too. Seek suggestions from clients and customers, vendors and suppliers. Even marketing, advertising and local networking events can contribute.

“Small companies with limited resources can foster innovation by becoming more visible in a number of places—be it their local communities, their business industries, their target customer markets—and without necessarily having to break the bank,” Limbers said. “Visibility allows for highly valuable engagement with customers, fellow business owners and a myriad of other potential stakeholders, which increases the potential for successful ideation and innovation through collaboration.”

[Read more: Why Innovation Must Be a Routine Function in Your Business]

Innovation is a team sport, so the most important step is to identify people in the company who can regularly engage in innovation sessions

Rebeca Hwang, professor of practice Arizona State University and leader of the Global Center for Family Business and Entrepreneurship

Study up

Innovation may be inextricably linked with inspiration, but many of the skills needed to generate ideas and bring them successfully to market can be learned—by you or key employees you might put in charge of innovation. Research suggests innovation requires being alert to the good ideas, then being proactive to develop them.

IDEO U teaches innovation and creativity via online classes.

Coursera offers online instructionals in developing innovative ideas for new companies and managing innovation initiatives, among others.

An online course from the global Institute for Management Development teaches how a creative mindset and the right strategies can foster disruptive innovation. Harvard Business School also has an online course in disruptive innovation.

Harvard University’s extension school offers an “Innovation and Entrepreneurship Certificate” in which one learns “principles and methods of idea generation and development” and can “gain fluency in how to communicate, finance, or market a new idea, product, or initiative.”

Leverage common software

People innovate, but software offers a vital assist for everything from discovery through data analysis to idea presentation. The first step in unleashing technology is simply overcoming any reluctance to using it.

“Small businesses with less than 250 employees can access new markets and target new customers at a relatively affordable cost using digital tools,” according to research by professional services firm Deloitte. Compared to relative Luddites, digitally advanced small businesses earn twice the revenue per employee and grow revenue four times as much per year, Deloitte found.

There are apps designed specifically to inspire ideas and manage innovation efforts. But software that can spark innovation may be already loaded on your computers, or available at relatively low cost, according to a new study in the journal Information and Organization.

“The message of the study is that companies could derive greater benefits from limited resources,” said study leader Dorit Nevo, an associate professor in the Lally School of Management at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. “They do not need to buy specialized costly software, because under the right conditions employees can be innovative with IT that is already implemented.”

Helpful apps include software for customer relationship management, enterprise resource planning, material requirements planning and analytics suites, the study found. The key is to encourage employees who are inclined to learn the technology to actually play around with it, Nevo explained. If those curious explorers are also creative thinkers and have a good understanding of their jobs and the overall business, they’re apt to discover new opportunities. The software can then help them champion their ideas.

"Innovation is found not just by using technology specifically created to support idea-generation," Nevo said. "Creativity comes from both the tool and the person who uses it."

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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Published February 11, 2021