You’re seeing it everywhere. Disruptive innovation is becoming the new norm, and you’re concerned that your business is merely going through the motions, missing opportunities.
How can you join the Elon Musks of the world, without the corresponding bulging budget?
It turns out that many of the techniques of today’s top innovators don’t require vast outlay. They’re simply about different ways of thinking.
Here are three strategies for enhancing the culture of innovation in your organisation without blowing billions.
1Use ‘Ignorance as strategy’
You’ve encountered the aphorism, ‘To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.’ Similarly, to a banker, the only imaginable approach to banking is ‘the way banking has always been done’. When bankers try to think of innovative new ways of banking, they invariably think of greater complexity.
Along came PayPal
In the April 2016 edition of Harvard Business Review, Reid Hoffman, one of the founders of PayPal, said, ‘All the banking people knew the rules. That prevented them from trying anything that looked remotely like PayPal.’
PayPal was not invented by a bank, just as Uber was not invented by a taxi driver.
To make use of ‘ignorance as strategy,’ try this. Gather a group of strategic thinkers and set the rule: ‘The old way of doing it has been outlawed. How else might we serve the same need?’
Or: ‘We are now our competitors. We have half the budget, but our hearts and souls are invested in one purpose: To topple the original company. We can’t do it the way they do it. So how could we go about it?’
Or: ‘The company has burnt to the ground. We’ve lost everything. We need to keep serving our customers but we need a new, cheap, fast way to do it right now that doesn’t rely on any equipment or systems we used before. What have you got?’
2Use commander’s intent
Imagine: You’re a military commander. You need to move a convoy of trucks through a dangerous canyon. Your intelligence tells you that there is a sniper on one of the escarpments.
There are two ways you could issue an instruction to a soldier:
The first way: ‘Go take out that sniper.’
That’s very clear, and very good. But there’s something surprisingly important missing from it. The ‘why’ is not overtly stated, and for that reason, the mission could actually fail.
Let’s try it again the second way: ‘Go take out that sniper because we need to ensure safe passage through the canyon for our convoy.’
That may sound like a ridiculously obvious addition. Here is why it’s not: In a real, dynamic scenario, things change constantly.
Let’s say your soldier breaks off from the convoy and heads up into the mountains. Very quickly, three things go wrong:
- He can’t find the sniper
- Enemy forces start firing at him, making it difficult to look for the sniper
- His own weapon fails to fire so that he can’t shoot back.
If our soldier thinks only about the literal instruction — ‘shoot the sniper’ — he is now unable to carry it out. But if he bases his actions on the commander’s intention — ‘secure our convoy’ — other options open up to him.
He might draw their fire. He might set a bushfire. Or he might cause a commotion in a different canyon, disguising the movements of his convoy. He might, he might, he might… But only if he is absolutely clear on Commander’s Intent, and not working according to an explicit tasked item only.
Managers love to create detailed rules and procedures. But these can actually stifle innovation. Commander’s Intent is the life hack by which we get the upper hand again, freeing up leeway for creative potential.
3Instead of rules: Imaginative debate
Organisations accumulate rules over time. Problematically, rules can become a form of culture. And there is a better way.
When NASA faced two separate, well-known challenges, their culture at each stage was very different.
In 1970, Apollo 13 was two days into its mission when an explosion knocked out one of their oxygen tanks. The ensuing creative scramble to get the astronauts safely home is the stuff of legend. The creative trial and experimentation that went into rescuing them was formidable. New procedures were made up back on earth, then tested in the simulator, then relayed to the astronauts 200 000 miles away, almost in real-time.
Through this process of creative trial and experimentation, of collaborative inter-disciplinary debate, one by one the issues were resolved and the crew was brought home safely.
At this point in time, NASA’s culture was ruled by imaginative debate. It was an exploratory culture, an experimenting culture, a culture based on learning and evolution.
By contrast, at the time of the Columbia disaster of 2003, the culture of experimentation had given way to one of formalised rules, regimented procedures and rigid hierarchy. NASA had stopped being a learning organisation. It had become a bureaucracy instead.
As Columbia re-entered the earth’s atmosphere, a large piece of foam fell from the shuttle’s external tank and broke the wing of the spacecraft. The shuttle broke into pieces. NASA recovered 84 000 pieces from a debris field of over 2 000 square miles.
The investigation revealed some damning insights about the culture that led to the problem.
During a post-launch review, a group of engineers actually saw this foam dislodge from the rocket. They tried to pass on this information. NASA’s management, which by this stage liked to manage everything ‘by the rules’, had seen dislodged foam before, and, according to their institutionalised perceptions, deemed it to be unimportant.
The engineers tried to argue that it seemed like a lot more foam than usual. It was a qualitative argument, based on human insight and intelligence. But NASA was unable to listen. Dislodging foam was a known quantity, and the voices of dissenters went unheeded.
NASA by this stage was so bound in rules and procedures that, in important ways, it had ceased to be a learning, experimenting culture. And that made it incapable of hearing an idea, to its great detriment.
Imaginative debate allows situational awareness to pass up and down the chain of command. It promotes the opportunity to see innovation possibilities. It shows up problems that fall outside of the capacity of norms and guidelines.
The Israeli Defence Force uses an examination of these two cultures within NASA as a way of perpetuating a learning culture within its own organisation. In Start-Up Nation, Israeli air-force pilot Tal Keinan is quoted as saying that if NASA had stuck to their experimental culture, the way his own air force and military do, they would have identified and seriously debated the foam strikes at the daily debrief.
Debating everything isn’t tedious. It’s illuminating.
Putting rules in place of debate isn’t clarifying. It’s dulling.
Rigid rules enforced by unlearning authority are a recipe for real danger. The use of strenuous debate helps to overcome these blind spots.
Cultures of learning are far more idea-friendly than bureaucracies. And it costs nothing to become one. Merely a little willingness.
Innovate For Change – Think Like A Social Entrepreneur
Why consider the social entrepreneurship model?
Social entrepreneurship is an exciting business arena that finds new, sustainable business solutions to long-standing problems. Social entrepreneurs see social challenges (such as poverty, homelessness, poor infrastructure or lack of quality education) as an opportunity for change.
This approach brings together the best that business practices offer and blends it with the best that civil society offers (a social mission, broader stakeholders involvement and the engagement of the community). By generating income from business activities and reinvesting its profits back into driving its mission, this approach generates both social value and economic value simultaneously.
Why consider the social entrepreneurship model?
1. Seeing social challenges as opportunities
South Africa’s social and structural challenges, from our poor ranking in health and education to the high level of unemployment, provide a myriad of opportunities for entrepreneurs that are willing to roll up their sleeves and work to build a better future.
The recent winner of the recent Nation Builder Social Innovation Challenge, Lungi Tyali, is a great example of this mindset.
Across Africa, there is a dire lack of provision for the electrification needs of the majority of the population, especially in rural communities. In South Africa, at present, there are 3.4-million households without a formal, metered electricity supply; 2.2-million in formal and 1.2-million in informal households. Lungi Tyali is the CEO of Solar Turtle who, with her business partner, James van der Walt, created a solar energy solution for rural and off-grid areas. Solar Turtle provides a solar-powered kiosk in a container that serves as a hub for renewable electricity. During the day, the solar panels are open to collect sunlight and at night they are enclosed and locked securely into the container.
Related: How To Be A Social Entrepreneur
2. Social entrepreneurship has low barriers to entry
Many of the most successful social enterprises start off small with an enterprising individual seeing an opportunity in their local community and building from this small beginning. There is no prerequisite for a university degree of formal training. Growing social enterprises can thus also offer employment opportunities to unskilled workers and youth without experience, addressing South Africa’s high level of unemployment.
One such story is that of Nonhlanhla Joye, the founder and facilitator of Umgibe Farming, Organics and Training Institute. Ma’ Joye, was diagnosed with cancer in 2014 and as a result, could not work to provide food for her family. She decided to grow organic vegetables in her backyard to feed her family. Unfortunately, the chickens ate all her vegetables and she had to come up with a solution.
She innovated a growing system using plastic bags. Before long Ma Joye was teaching other community members to use her growing system. A platform was born where poor communities started growing vegetables to feed themselves and collectively sell their surplus produce.
3. Corporate Social Investment, with purpose
Social enterprises also offer individuals and companies the opportunity to invest in lasting social change. Unlike traditional philanthropy, the impact of social enterprises has the potential to be much more lasting by directly providing affordable social goods and services, as well as employment opportunities.
Nation Builder, for example, is a platform* that brings like-minded businesses and civil society together in order to learn from each other and partner together for the greatest possible impact through wise and responsible social investing.
4. Personal actualisation
Perhaps the most rewarding advantage of being a social entrepreneur is the impact you can have on society, but this model also offers several personal benefits:
- working to solve issues you care about
- freedom to explore and create innovative solutions that can inspire change
- the opportunity to turn passion into profit
- working as your own boss.
Having The Perfect Product Isn’t Enough To Keep You In Business
The odds of the small business surviving aren’t stacked in its favour. It’s more likely to fail than succeed. That’s the bitter truth. However, once it’s able to shake off the niggling teething problems, watch it as it unfolds from a pupa to a beautiful butterfly.
There is a small bakery operates in my neighbourhood. It bakes bread; no cakes or other confectionaries. The best home-made bread that has your palates yearning for more. This is in sharp contrast with the bread produced by bigger bakeries. They also supply bread to the neighbourhood.
The bigger bakeries operate a model that is largely automated to the point that they lose a very important ingredient beyond flour, yeast and whatever goes into making bread. They lack the personal touch that gives it the home-made feel. This is why the neighbourhood bakery is preferred despite being pricier.
The small bakery isn’t without its flaws; avoidable flaws that may, sadly, sink the business. My view is more on the certainty of the demise of the business as observers would’ve noticed a slow yet steady decline in the output of the business. These flaws aren’t unique to the bakery, several other small businesses have share the same flaws.
Why would a customer who is willing to pay more for a product suddenly cease patronising the business. What other factor apart from higher price, in the absence of a drop in purchasing power, would make a customer buy bread of supposed inferior quality from the competition.
A couple of years ago when I moved to the neighbourhood the business was doing great. Even during a biting recession the shelves were always stacked with freshly baked bread of different varieties. Despite the excellent product on display, there was an unsatisfactory trend in the operation of the business.
For one, the sales personnel are rude. Having the right staff is necessary to grow any business, but when this very fundamental issue isn’t gotten right it will be fatal to the business. After all for how long would customers put up with poor service delivery in the face of stiff competition from bigger rivals.
Small business owners must realise that proper training of staff is as important as sourcing for capital and shouldn’t be overlooked as the survival of the business also rests on it. Bigger businesses in this regard always come out tops in comparison with their smaller counterparts.
Annually, big businesses spend billions of dollars on staff training for the simple recognition of the fact that having disgruntled customers, on account of poor service by personnel, is dangerous for business. Despite their size, big businesses tend to understand better the importance of the single customer. Also, how the discontent of a few customers can translate into poor sales which is detrimental to the business.
The mindset of a small business shouldn’t be different. Investing in staff shouldn’t be treated with levity to ensure the business not only stays afloat, but also grow it. Growing a business is in itself tough work, small business owners shouldn’t make it tougher by providing terrible service.
The neighbourhood bakery lacks this important feature and it’s been responsible for the steady decline in sales. I didn’t know the poor service rendered by the attendants had attained much notoriety until I was having a conversation with a group of individuals at a religious gathering and the issue came up. It’s a sad realisation.
For financial reasons small businesses aren’t known for recruiting the best personnel. Most employ the services of family members. While there is nothing wrong with this, it’s important to ensure such person is the best fit for the business. Employing family members may lead to a myriad of problems for the business. Therefore it will be in the best interest of the business not to employ an incompetent family member than have him ruin the business. This is a risky way of running the business.
The feeling of the customer towards the goods or services businesses provide is key to its success or failure. This is because customers can have the most unbiased assessment of the business rather than management and staff. Despite the poor service the bakery openly had on display, no one seemed to have bothered complaining to the owner of the business. So it may seem.
It will be in the best interest of a small business owner to leave an open channel for feedbacks from customers. This isn’t the case with the bakery and some other businesses face this challenge too which may lead to further problems.
The inability to provide an avenue for customers to channel their complaint to the proper individual creates a problem of inaccessibility. Accessibility happens to be an area of strength for small businesses because of their size. In larger businesses, despite creating channels for complaints there is usually no personal relationship between the owners and their customers. This is an area a small business shouldn’t be found wanting.
One would imagine that as a small business, the owner of the bakery should be easily accessible to interact with customers to in order to obtain feedbacks pertaining service and staff performance. This isn’t the case as the business clearly takes this important factor for granted. A lot of customers don’t know the owner of the bakery despite patronising it for years.
On paper the size of small businesses translates to easy accessibility. A closer look will reveal that the owners of small businesses tend to take a lot of things for granted. They fail to realise that they have to be consciously open to the idea and cultivate the habit of seeking feedbacks from customers. A small scale business has to maximise its potential for dynamism and flexibility. If it can’t take advantage of its unique qualities then it’s doomed.
There has been a reduction in the variety of bread baked and in addition to this is the equal reduction in the amount of bread on display generally. From observation it’s clear that patronage has taking a massive hit.
It’s painful witnessing the slow demise of a business with a good product due to its own failures. Having the perfect product won’t on its own keep the small business in business. The odds of the small business surviving aren’t stacked in its favour. It’s more likely to fail than succeed. That’s the bitter truth. However, once it’s able to shake off the niggling teething problems, watch it as it unfolds from a pupa to a beautiful butterfly.
Customers Are The Heart Of Innovative Businesses
Keep your customer at the heart of your business.
One of the main reasons start-ups fail is because they don’t create solutions that meet their customers’ needs. Failure is avoidable. Businesses that understand their customers feelings, challenges, expectations and motivations make themselves indispensable in highly competitive markets because they recognise that true innovation is led by customer insight.
An incredible example of a business that believes in innovation driven by insight is Netflix. They revolutionised the way people watch video content by listening to their customer’s needs. You’ve probably heard the story before: after paying a $40 overdue DVD fee, Reed Hastings co-founded Netflix. He was simply too busy to return his DVD. He recognised that this experience wasn’t exclusive to him, but that it was a problem that many people faced. He saw a gap in the market for receiving and returning videos more effectively, and that is how the $150 billion business was born.
If your start-up doesn’t fulfil a human need, then you’re setting yourself up for failure. It’s not enough to have a cool idea. Ask yourself, “What is the market need behind the offering?” and then test ways of delivering your offering in the most user-friendly manner. Talk to your consumers, understand their likes and dislikes and establish your business purpose before haphazardly allocating funds to R&D.
You can’t go from being a California based DVD-by-mail provider, to becoming the world’s largest online video streaming service without a business plan. It’s important to recognise the step-by-step process of success. Netflix didn’t go from delivering DVD’s to pouring capital into the production of video content within six months. That sort of development would have bankrupt the company almost immediately. It took 21 years for the business to become content creators.
- In 1999, the company became a subscription service because they found that customers preferred paying a monthly fee rather than making a once off purchase.
- Then, in 2009, the company used investor capital to expand their DVD collection because their clients wanted a larger selection of movies.
- In 2010, the business expanded internationally because they saw a gap in the market across various countries.
- Finally, in 2013, Netflix created its first original content series because customers craved fascinating content beyond the overused Hollywood archetype.
The point is: Progress didn’t happen overnight. The business had to set goals and objectives. They then had to fund their growth by presenting market opportunities, backed by customer insights, to their investors. Establish your start-up one step at a time and make sure every progression isn’t innovation for innovations sake – it must be inspired by a human need.
Netflix was founded by a computer scientist and a marketing director. While one partner focused on Netflix’ service development, the other focused on sales. Since the company’s origin, collaboration and balance have been the cornerstones of the business’ success.
Netflix is currently composed of a diverse team of tech-professionals and designers. They understand the importance of combining technology and design to offer customer-inspired user-experiences.
After conducting consumer research, Netflix discovered that series and movie artwork influences viewing decisions by 82%. This has resulted in the creation of more descriptive and provocative designs. Netflix is known for leveraging human-behaviour to revolutionise their service offering.
As an entrepreneur, you can increase your ROI by partnering with the experts that understand human-based innovation.
Keep your customer at the heart of your business.
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