A guiding principle for startup success, as well as the long-term health of a mature business, is a liberal dose of innovation at the beginning, with additions of the same on a regular basis. Unfortunately, innovation means change, and most business professionals and existing customers, by default, hate change. Thus without thinking, every company becomes more static.
In fact, innovation needs to be an integral part of the company culture and every process from the beginning. This takes leadership from the top, and an ongoing focus on market change, customer feedback, and internal measurement and rewards. For example, Google has institutionalized innovation through a manifesto initiated by Marissa Mayer in her early days as a VP there.
I believe these basic practices of innovation, paraphrased here, should be adopted by every new venture owner, and every business executive, as the keys to long-term health and success in every market served:
- Demand and reward innovation from all business elements. Executives should solicit new ideas from everyone at every level, both inside the organization and outside, top down and bottoms up. Business leadership and innovation implementation still need to be visible and supported by all management, through actions as well as messages.
- Let customer value be the driver, rather than cost savings. When innovations are driven by increased customer value and satisfaction, business growth will come naturally from repeat business, new customers, and referrals. Employees will be motivated by delighted customers, and the value will spread to the greater community and society.
- Aim for an order-of-magnitude innovation improvement. “Nice to have” features or a ten percent cost advantage is not convincing or competitive these days. To get customer attention, you need innovations that represent a tenfold improvement in cost or function. Of course, multiple small innovations should not be overlooked for their cumulative value.
- Focus on translating new technology into solutions. From a customer perspective, new technology does not have value until it provides a solution that meets their needs. For Google, this has led to their voice-activated personal assistant, better maps, and the prospect of self-driving cars. Technology innovation alone is necessary, but not sufficient.
- Innovations need real market feedback and iterations. Too many innovations that aren’t perfect the first time never get a second look, and die an expensive death. Others get caught in analysis paralysis, and never get exposed to real customers. Remember that the market is constantly changing, so “rinse and repeat” is the order of the day.
- Allocate one-fifth of every work day to finding innovation. Start with a focus on hiring people who have a track record as change agents, and encourage them to spend twenty percent of their work time on new ideas and innovations, both within and outside the job boundaries. Make sure you have compensation and rewards to support this strategy.
- Don’t be reluctant to share your efforts with your industry. Information sharing, such as through open source and white papers, will increase market acceptance of your innovation, and allow concurrent work on integration and standardization. You need others for collaboration and feedback, and you need their sharing of their ideas.
- Treat failures as a badge of courage and learning opportunities. Thomas Edison called every failure a success, as each one taught him what didn’t work. Learn to fail fast and fail cheap to keep up with today’s rapidly changing and highly competitive marketplace. Allow no negativity or penalties to be associated with failed experiments.
- Connect your innovation efforts to a higher purpose. Employees think harder and get more satisfaction if they believe their innovations will positively impact the greater good and the environment. Companies that give back are seen as more trustworthy and more attractive for new business. Set and communicate real legacy goals for the business.
The rate of change and competition in the world is increasing, rather than decreasing. This is all the more reason for no more excuses, delays, or negativity about the costs of change. It’s time to create your own innovation manifesto for leading the way, rather than the “business as usual” struggling to keep up. Catching up later is not a viable strategy for survival in business today.