Strategies for Sustaining Innovation in Your Small Business

Katie McBeth  | 

Being a disruptor is more than just having a great idea. It also involves a thorough understanding of your customer’s or audience’s needs. It sometimes requires years of involvement in the industry, and it certainly can’t happen in a day.

Similarly, innovations don’t just happen once. They happen all the time, and they have to continue happening on a rapid basis. That is because there will always be someone striving to one-up you in the industry. It’s a never-ending competition, and you have to be prepared to constantly be fighting ahead.

But what happens if your business closes because of a disruption, and how can you become a disruptor in your business before someone else does? How does anyone sustain innovation and repeat disruption?

Let’s dive into what experts say about innovation and how to sustain it throughout the lifetime of a business.

Innovation Versus Disruption

First, it’s important to define the difference between “innovation” and “disruption.” Although they are similar as ideas, they are not synonymous with each other. It’s akin to the “not all dogs are poodles, but all poodles are dogs” idea. Although disruptors are all innovators, not all innovators will end up becoming disruptors within their industry.

Harvard Business Review defines disruption as: “[it] describes a process whereby a smaller company with fewer resources [an entrant] is able to successfully challenge established incumbent businesses. Specifically, as incumbents focus on improving their products and services for their most demanding (and usually most profitable) customers, they exceed the needs of some segments and ignore the needs of others. … When mainstream customers start adopting the entrants’ offerings in volume [and no longer the incumbents’], disruption has occurred.”

Essentially, disruption can only occur when the rules for an industry have been completely changed. Innovation, on the other hand, can happen all the time and has less grandiose requirements. Innovation can simply be a great idea that opens up avenues for future disruption, or it can be ideas that broaden the market, broaden the product line, or more. However, it doesn’t always have to do with the products you’re creating: it can also involve management, CEOs, and employees. Innovation, and disruption, are a state of mind for businesses.

However, it’s important to define the difference between innovation and disruption so you can better understand how you want to direct your business and build your business model. Maintaining disruption can be extremely difficult, but maintaining innovation is less so. If your whole business was built off of a disruptive model, you don’t want to continually disrupt your own progress and customer base.

You do, however, want to be constantly reinventing yourself, revisiting innovative paths, and exploring new opportunities. That is where innovation lies.

Strategies for Sustained Innovation

Sustaining innovation can be tricky. It’s far too easy to fall into repetitive and comfortable patterns. Humans are creatures of habit, after all, and innovation goes against habitual behavior.

However, if you plan on making your business model one of innovation, you will need to start at the top. Management and business owners have to ensure that their actions, decisions, and ideas all stem from the same clear path of innovation. Employees will follow when they’re given a clear path.

Innovation Management, a Swedish online magazine focused on innovative leadership, highlights seven steps that managers need to take to ensure sustained innovation. To start, there needs to be a clear directional path for each member of the organization. Once a path is built, communication needs to stay fluid across all channels. Employees need to be able to trust their managers and leaders, and that can only be done with open and honest communication.

Next, Innovation Management suggests getting rid of bureaucracy altogether. Systems inhibit innovation, and as they note: “Faster implementation encourages further inventive thinking.” Bureaucracy often creates unnecessary hoops and roadblocks for employees, things that can tie up speedy action. By the time an idea is approved and implemented, it could be too late and others may already have implemented the very innovation you were hoping for. To avoid being outshone, simply avoid the setbacks that bureaucracy creates.

It’s also important to build up a team that is willing to see your idea through for the long haul. Turnover can be especially dangerous to a growing company that is trying to stay innovative, and losing talent can be devastating. This is why it is important to instill a sense of ownership for your employees, so they feel like the business, it’s model, and their own work are all traveling towards the same dream. Ensure that employees are being recognized and properly rewarded for their work. If they fail, welcome that failure instead of cutting them off completely. Failure can be good for business, and it can help innovation happen. Tolerating a certain degree of risk and failure can help your business reach disruptive levels. Sometimes you have to stick your neck out there in order to get ahead, even if it stretches your business thin.

As for the projects and processes that don’t work, Innovation Management suggests scrapping them altogether. There’s no reason you should be fighting an uphill battle against projects that are not fruitful. They note:

“While no organization wants to squander financial resources on unprofitable activities, it is actually the irreplaceable resource of time and employee energy that is wasted if a company holds on to the old way of doing things. Innovation requires optimism. It’s about an attitude of continually reaching for higher performance. You can’t expect employees to maintain an optimistic attitude if they feel compelled to continue in activities that are going nowhere.”

Innovation requires a lot of discourse, problem solving, and fast thinking. As HBR notes, this can also be boiled down to a simple three-point model.

“First, the people and groups in them do collaborative problem solving, which we call creative abrasion. Second, they try things and learn by discovery, demonstrating creative agility. Third, they create new and better solutions because they integrate existing ideas in unanticipated ways, practicing creative resolution.”

Being an innovative business requires a constant push away from comfort zones, and a constant pull towards discussion, challenges, and — ultimately — resolutions.

Working Towards an Innovative Future

Being a constantly innovation-minded person can be tiring. There will always be a new idea or concept that can come across your mind and so many avenues that you will want to pursue. But if you work on building a business that can sustain that innovation, and can welcome the discourse and struggles that come with it, then you will be well on your way to sustaining an innovative platform.

Disruptions, innovation, and failure are on the path of every ambitious CEO’s journey. Don’t shy away from the opportunities that you may face, and you could potentially become an industry disruptor yourself. Innovation and disruption — just like life — is all about the journey, not the destination.

For more tips and guides, visit our small business resource center.


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Katie McBeth is a researcher and writer out of Boise, ID, with experience in marketing for small businesses and management. Her favorite subject of study is millennials, and she has been featured on Fortune Magazine and the Quiet Revolution. She researches SEO strategies during the day, and freelances at night. You can follow her writing adventures on Instagram or Twitter: @ktmcbeth

This post was updated December 7, 2017. It was originally published October 14, 2017.