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How to foster innovative thinking inside your business

Reading time: 3 - 6 minutes

How many large companies can you think of that have fallen by the wayside because they didn’t stay relevant in their market? Companies like Kodak and Blockbuster spring to mind as historical references but what about future possibilities?

With companies like Amazon, SpaceX, and Tesla disrupting industries such as retail, space travel and automotive, which of the current mighty incumbents are the likely failures of the future? 

Or what about the evolution of the financial industry with the introduction of crypto currencies? In this space it’s not only the ‘big banks’ who are taking notice, the governments of entire countries are starting to speak of banning third party crypto currencies at the same time as introducing their own

There’s no doubt therefore that, as business owners, leaders or managers, being attuned to the ever changing dynamics of your industry and audience is of utmost importance if you want to prevail in the new economy. 

Interestingly, the head of Bosch was asked, “What is the job of business owners or top management?”. He replied, “To think about effectiveness i.e. to do the right things.” He also stressed this is very different to being ‘efficient’ which involves doing things right.”

He’s referring to innovation, or thinking innovatively. Something that many businesses inadvertently neglect as the level of white noise of day-to-day working life consumes their most finite and precious resource; time.  

Now, if you think about truly innovative companies, such as we’ve already mentioned, another we like to refer to is 3M. It’s a brand we take for granted in normal daily life but, they’re another poster child when it comes to consistently behaving as an extremely innovative company. So much so that one of their tag lines is “Solve Unsolved Problems”. 

We can all learn a lot from companies like 3M and how they foster creativity in thinking. 

Firstly, and you might not initially like this but… they put their money where their mouth is. Every employee is given one day a week with which they can do whatever they please… It’s literally called an innovation day. 

They can go to the gym, stay at home, ride their bike, stare at a wall - whatever it is that they choose. The idea is to create ‘space’ for their employees' minds to foster creative thinking. And it works.

Before dismissing this idea out of hand, which would be ironic, this may be a good time to ask yourself this… “How much time do you provide for yourself to think creatively about your business, let alone your employees?”

Of course, it’s expected that, at some stage, employees will put forward one or more of their innovative ideas. But, with tens of thousands of employees, how could the management of 3M possibly cope with the endless supply of ideas?

Side note: What a lovely problem to have!

They actually have a very simple and straightforward way of handling this…

Employees are given a 5 minute window in which to present (or pitch) their idea. Of course, there are some guiding criteria that form the basis of what the management wants to hear about within that 5 minute window. 

In fact, there are just 3 criteria as follows:

  1. How will your idea create value for new customers? (the acid test for getting them to open their wallets)

  2. How will your idea substantially differentiate us from the competition?

  3. How can we make money? (and lots of money)

You will probably agree that this level of laser focussed, creative discussion is a rarity in most businesses. 

A more common reality is that either employees do not actively engage in creative thinking about the business they’re employed in OR, when an idea is put forward it just gets rejected before a deeper dive can be undertaken.

Now we’re not saying that you should immediately start providing all staff with an innovation day each week but…

Maybe there are ways you adopt the spirit of the 3M process. Why not start with yourself? If you’re the business owner or senior manager then you likely have control over your calendar. If your immediate thought was that you’re too busy to allocate yourself an innovation day you may want to read this article again.

Similarly, the spirit of this innovation process at 3M has two sides: the giving and the receiving. If you’re in a position on the ‘receiving side’ then you are morally charged with adopting the same open minded spirit. By that we mean, be open to new ideas even if they feel uncomfortable or represent major change to your current business model. 

One way to handle the moment you are presented with a new, creative idea is to install a simple rule - something we call the ‘Yay Before Nay’. The rules of the game are such:

Each time an idea is offered to you, you must (collectively) come up with 3 ways that you would try to make the idea come to life, to make it work. All too often ideas get shot down instantly - dismissed out of hand. You must actively fight that natural instinct and, instead, reframe the thought to one ‘how to’? 

Note: Without this reframe we may never have had Post-its in our life! 

If after a genuine effort to find ways to make an idea work it seems it simply will not, no problem, kill it. But at least you tried and the employee in question will be energised and motivated to continue bringing innovative ideas to the table.

As professional business advisors to our clients this is a process we encourage and appreciate to be involved in. The world around us all is changing. These are exciting times but, standing still and clinging to the old way of doing things is unlikely to help you thrive into the future.


If you need to inspire more innovation in your business, lets talk! Contact us for professional business and accounting advise.

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