What does innovation do for our small businesses? It makes them "more competitive and better placed to capitalize on business opportunities that arise", says Jean-René Halde, Business Development Bank of Canada's president and chief executive officer (Entrepreneurs say innovation is important, BDC Press Release).
So how can we encourage innovation in our small businesses? Here are seven ways.
Ways to Kickstart Business Innovation
1) Realize that innovation can be simple.
- We tend to think of innovation as a formal and complicated process, but it doesn't have to be. Innovation is just a fancy word for improvement and invention. When you come up with better packaging, find a supplier who will give you a better rate, or try out a new marketing idea, you are involved in innovation.
2) Build innovation into your business routines.
- Set aside an hour each week to think and exercise your creativity. (Here's a collection of Creating Creativity and Innovation resources from About.com Inventors to help, if you need it.)
- Build innovation into your business planning by setting goals that focus on improving products and processes. For example, one of your business goals might be to find and try out a new way to communicate with your customers.
- Create an innovation action plan to implement your innovation goals.
3) Actively solicit suggestions for improvement of your small business's processes and products.
- Use both formal and informal methods to get customers to make suggestions for innovation, such as questionnaires, surveys, and casual one-on-one conversations. (You may find Tips For Developing Surveys and Questionnaires useful.)
- Talk to your suppliers and see what suggestions for improvement they might have.
4) Involve staff in the innovation process.
- Make problem solving a part of every staff meeting. For each meeting, for instance, you might set a question for discussion on a specific product or process that asks, "How can we improve...?" Publicize the topic of discussion a week ahead of time so people have time to think about it.
- Have a suggestion box.
- Reward staff for suggestions that are followed through on.
- Talk to staff impromptu. Get out of your office if you have one and make personal visits to chat about how things are going.
- Provide creativity/innovation workshops for staff.
5) Invest in innovation.
- Invest in technology that improves your business operations and make your company more competitive. Information and communications technology are particularly worthwhile.
- Invest in machinery and equipment that will allow you to make productivity improvements.
- Invest in developing new products and services.
6) Cultivate an innovation mindset.
- Continue to educate yourself about innovation by attending workshops, webinars, conferences, reading blogs and articles, etc.
- Stay on top of developments, technological and otherwise, in your industry. If you're not a member, join at least one professional or industry organization and participate in its meetings and events.
7) Investigate SR&ED possibilities for your business.
- The Canadian government strongly supports SR&ED (Scientific Research and Experimental Development) and through the SR&ED tax credit program Canadian companies can get reimbursed for up to 41.5% of their expenses for qualifying projects. Ordinary small businesses can participate in this program, even sole proprietorships. So check out the requirements in How to Identify SR&ED-Eligible Projects and see how your small business might get involved.
The Key to Innovation Success
It's not enough to say that innovation is a priority; you have to actually work at it.
Jim Hogan, President and co-founder of VMAC, which developed a rotary screw compressor technology that revolutionized the mobile compressor industry, puts it this way; "I've developed my own philosophy about innovation. It may sound corny, but you have to think you're smart and try things. If you don't, your competitors eventually will. The prize goes to the people with the guts to try" (The Innovation Challenge, Business Development Bank of Canada).