Keep This in Mind as You Charge out into the World to Innovate

As small business owners and entrepreneurs, we’ve all heard the quotes. Zuckerberg, Gates, Jobs, Sandberg – take your pick – telling us to follow our thoughts, innovate, and “think different.”

Of course, it’s great advice. Their success – as well as the recent election -- shows how an outsider can change the status quo.

But here’s what gets left out of those shareable quotes: It’s really, really hard to innovate. You need the financing to make mistakes, and you need to break down the structural, traditional, strategic, and cultural barriers that crop up in many organizations.

Take IBM as an example. They started out innovating, but then structure and tradition made it harder to innovate the next time. And harder still the next time.

After awhile, they essentially stopped putting out cutting edge products and instead made stuff that was professional, affordable, and, frankly, mediocre. Their company, one that used to embrace innovation, had become shackled by a system of structures that made it hard to push boundaries and do anything new. Some worry Apple may be on the same path .

So, how do we innovate?

By definition, innovation is dependent on challenging the expected and trying out-of-the-box ideas. There’s a certain amount of “magic” involved – the ability to see where we’re headed instead of where we are. The ability to create solutions to problems we don’t even know we have – which brings to mind the Henry Ford quote (which is similar to one by Steve Jobs): “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

But beyond that, there’s a certain hidden truth that’s just as important: Don’t ignore what works. Build on it.

Challenging the status quo is important for there to be progress, but it’s not always necessary all the time. There are systems and solutions and ideas that have worked since the beginning of time that still work. For example companies like Uber and Airbnb have tweaked basic services with technology or structural changes.

Customer service is another a great example. Most companies have dramatically improved measures like response time, errors, returns, and solutions to customer issues. However, I argue empowering agents to solve problems with their own discretion is still one of the most effective practices. In addition, common courtesy like “please,” “thank you,” and “how are you?” are great for changing tension into positive interactions.

And then there’s the frosting on the cake, the final step: Set up a system that perpetuates innovation instead of stifling it. You can’t just innovate once and call it a career. You need to keep doing it over and over. Make sure you don’t become an assembly line for last year’s stuff.

So, as you charge out there into the world with the intention of innovating, keep in mind the work the lies ahead of you. By anticipating where the world is going to be, and by building on the innovation that came before you and the innovation of today, you can work to create the innovation of tomorrow.