Continuous innovation is required to survive in all businesses, beginning with your startup, and increasing in importance as your business matures. Technologists often insist that new things can’t be invented on a schedule, but successful companies seem to be able to do it on a regular basis.
Many people have tried to define a process for innovation, but most are too abstract for me. I like the easy to remember approach found in Robert’s Rules of Innovation: A 10-Step Program for Corporate Survival by Robert F. Brands (the website no longer exists). It seems to be more concrete, and chronicles several decades of practical experience to solidify the principles which together spell INNOVATION:
- Inspire. The first and most important step is to identify a leader who can inspire and drive the process. In a startup, that needs to be the founder or CEO, and that person has to be regularly and personally involved. This is imperative.
- No risk, no innovation. Not every idea can, or will, be a winner. Without risk, there can be no innovation. Innovation teams perform best when they trust that failure or a pivot will not result in punitive measures. Fear of failure can kill innovation.
- New product development process. A formalized process with timelines and milestones is a must. This should include at least the key elements of idea generation, prioritization, prototyping, commercialization, and measurement.
- Ownership. Innovation needs ownership, a champion, and a team leader within the organization. The champion must have the credibility to convince others to take calculated risks and work outside of one’s comfort zone.
- Value creation. Successful innovation turns ideas into money, to enhance customer value, and thus shareholder value. Longer-term, enhanced product value begets superior company valuation through your organization’s intellectual property (IP) portfolio.
- Accountability. This is a critical component of the trust equation, even when the process is akin to “herding cats.” Team members need to feel responsible for on-time delivery. Slippage is the sure way to jeopardize the entire process.
- Training and coaching. Proper hiring of people with a natural curiosity, open-mindedness, and ability to see the big picture is the way to create and enhance the right mind-set. Ongoing coaching from the top is essential to maintain the attitude and spirit.
- Idea management. Build and manage a pipeline of ideas. From time to time, include customers and sales members in ideation sessions. Make sure all team members have some connection with the product – has either used it, or sold it, or assembled it.
- Observe and measure. Tracking results are essential to optimal ROI. Product life cycles keep getting shorter and shorter, which mandates accelerated innovation cycles. Once a new product is launched, a key metric is the ratio of new product sales to overall sales.
- Net result and reward. Based on ROI, incentives should be developed for all participants. Reward your people. Frequently, the key motivator is less financial than it is recognition for a job well done. People are your best innovation resource.
Sustainable innovation is really the only sustainable competitive advantage. But innovation is hard because people by nature resist change, and company cultures are most comfortable with the status quo. Yet survival in today’s world of rapid business change requires that you keep one step ahead of your competition. Innovation is what gives life to your business initially, and keeps it alive in the long term. Make sure your startup can spell it.