Innovation – it’s easier than you think

Why customers and employees are your best source of innovation.

Innovation. I talk about it a lot. It’s probably the most requested speaking topic I get from boardrooms to break-out sessions to webinars and retreats. Recently, I was sitting with a friend over drinks after a conference when he confided in me about the pressure he was under to innovate for his company. He was a regular guy. Smart but practical. Good at getting the work done, but when it came to driving change, well, he needed some advice.

He was honest in his self-assessment. He felt there were expectations from those around him to perform like a Steve Jobs or a Bill Gates. To do something dramatic in response to increased pressure from some of his competitors. And he felt like he was over his head. He’s not alone. Lots of business leaders today feel the same pressure to do something big. They feel like they need to change the world – or at least their industry.

It’s true, in the modern business era, there’s probably no one whose name is more synonymous with innovation than Steve Jobs. As Jobs once famously said, “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.” No pressure, right? But that night I reminded my friend about something Jobs also said: “Great things in business are never done by one person. They’re done by a team of people.”

The good news is, your best source of innovation is already right in front of you. It’s the customers and employees you work with every day.

We can’t all be expected to change the world. But we can all expect to innovate. The good news is, your best source of innovation is already right in front of you. It’s the customers and employees you work with every day.

incremental innovation - the work horse

The mistake a lot of business leaders make is to confuse the idea of innovation with one specific type of innovation - radical or disruptive innovation. It’s what we think of when we think of the development of new products or services, market shake-ups or reconfigurations. But there’s more to innovation than the iPads and Ubers of the world.

There’s a much more common (but equally important to your success) type of innovation. It’s not a rock star like its flashy sibling. It won’t be coming home with tattoos and bling. It’s more of a work-horse. It’s incremental innovation. Incremental innovation is when you see improvements to products, services or processes that upgrade the experience and drive more value. And it’s the prime mover when it comes to most of the measures of success in business including profitability, customer satisfaction, customer retention, market penetration and employee satisfaction.

innovating from the front lines

Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have.  It comes from the customers you treat as partners when you ask for their insight from the start. It comes from the people on the front lines that serve your customers. Companies that successfully make innovation part of their ongoing strategy do so by harnessing the creative energy of customers and employees across their business.

the bottom line - trust your feedback

The key to innovation is a systematic, data-driven feedback loop that helps your company identify new opportunities for improvement. It can be as simple as a suggestion box or as broad as innovation communities.  The end game? Results that are measurable and provide more value to your customer or employees.

Innovation, in all its forms requires risk. When it comes to incremental innovation, it doesn’t take the genius of a Steve Jobs. It just takes the ability to be able to put your trust in your customers and employees. That’s what I told my friend that night. That’s when I saw his eyes light up.

“I can do that,” he said. So can you.