Innovation. It’s become such a buzzword since Prime Minister Turnbull released the government’s $1.1 billion innovation plan last year, but what is it and why is it so pivotal to the success of small business?
According to Dr Amantha Imber, an innovation psychologist, author and founder of business consultancy Inventium, innovation in a business context is simply change that adds value.
“We’re quite deliberate with why we chose that definition,” she told The Huffington Post Australia.
“Firstly, we like that it’s about change. Too often innovation is anchored in things that are product-based or are technology-based. It’s quite a narrow and limiting view.
“If you’re working in an organisation and you don’t happen to be in the digital team or new product development team, it can seem that innovation is not your job, but anyone is capable of making a change, so it’s an inclusive definition.
“The value part is important as well -- one of the most common definitions I see around innovation is about doing something new or doing something differently.
“I think that’s fine if you’re looking to have a bit of fun with innovation but if you’re working for a company that actually wants to make a difference or turn a profit or have an impact, then that change has to add value.”
Dr Imber said Inventium, a consultancy that has driven innovation and created growth and marketing strategies for companies including Google, Coca-Cola, Disney, Red Bull, LEGO and Virgin Australia, came about when she became dissatisfied with her advertising job.
“I was working as a consumer psychologist and I had ethical challenges that one working in advertising has about the value of your job when you might just be helping people buy more chocolate bars -- and thought ‘OK, I’ve reached my use-by date here, I need to do something else I find more meaningful’.
“I’ve always been really passionate about innovation and creativity and what I noticed at the time is how much fluff there is about innovation; how many people will have opinions on the subject despite having no experience, how many people base their advice on a sample of one, and I thought there was a real lack of science and evidence-based approaches.
“So my aim with Inventium was to bridge the gap between what we know through science and research around what actually drives innovation and bring that into the real world and make it really practical and digestible for organisations out there.”
Dr Imber said the “inventiologists” in her firm were basically science geeks who apply the latest findings from psychology and neuroscience to help organisations gain a competitive edge through innovation.
“We get brought in a lot to help build capability around innovation.There’s a real myth that you're either born an innovator or you’re not, and if you’re not, then go and pursue some career that doesn’t require creativity, although I’m not sure what that would be!” she said.
“What we know from science is that with the right tools and structures and stimulus, it’s very easy to significantly improve someone’s ability to be a great innovator.
“With smaller businesses, we’ve spent a lot of our time helping to build that internal capability, so that you don’t need to come to consultants such as ourselves when you’ve got a tough problem to solve, you can really own that skillset internally.
“You can then understand how to generate great, breakthrough disruptive ideas.”
Here Dr Imber talks about five ways small business owners can create a culture in which innovation thrives.
1. Challenge – and finding the right level
Research has shown that feeling a strong sense of challenge in one’s work is a critical driver of innovation. Challenge refers to people working on tasks that are complex and interesting -- yet at the same time not overly taxing or unduly overwhelming.
It is important that you don’t simply think about how to give people the biggest possible challenge but set a level of challenge that is achievable. Take time to thoughtfully consider how you allocate tasks and projects.
2. Risk-taking – failure is OK!
Failure is generally a dirty word, and something that gets swept under the carpet when it does rear its ugly head. But being able to acknowledge and learn from failure is a huge part of building a culture where risk-taking is tolerated and where innovation can thrive.
As a leader, think about ways you can signal that risk-taking is an acceptable part of business. Talk openly about failures and what can be learnt.
3. Experimentation before implementation
When thinking about how your business approaches innovation, ensure that experimentation is a mandatory step. Rather than just going straight from idea to implementation, you should first run experiments.
This involves setting hypotheses as to why you believe an idea will add value to the customer and creating a minimum viable product (MVP) -- the most basic version of the idea that will still allow for learnings.
You can then set up an experiment to test your hypotheses using the MVP and based on the results, iterate or change course accordingly. Experimentation is a very effective way to help reduce the risk of new innovations.
4. Autonomy -- loosen the reins
Many researchers have found that creativity is dramatically enhanced when people are given the freedom to decide how they do their jobs.
When people feel as if they have a choice in how things can be done, they are significantly more likely to engage in trial and error and, through this, find more effective ways of doing things. Just be sure to set clear goals, as the autonomy effect is strongest when people are clear on what you want them to achieve.
5. Debate – welcome all views
One of the factors that has been identified as critical for creating a culture where innovation thrives is ensuring that different points of view are encouraged and that ideas are regularly debated. Lead by example and encourage others to debate and discuss ideas that you bring to the table -- actively encouraging different viewpoints will strengthen your innovations.
And when it comes to recruitment, avoid the temptation to employ people who are just like you -- doing so only discourages debate and encourages homogeneity of thinking.
Dr Imber’s latest book, The Innovation Formula, is available now.