The Non-Innovators Guide to Business Innovation

Last Updated Oct 27, 2011 9:36 AM EDT

Trying to be innovative feels, at least for most people, nearly impossible.

He didn't need any tips on innovation
Don't believe me? Go ahead. Be innovative. Step away and think of something new and different. I'll wait.

Back already? (Don't feel bad. I got back before you did.)

Since creativity isn't a switch the vast majority of us can turn on at will, the key to being innovative is to view a problem from a different perspective. Necessity is the mother of innovation, so creating a little artificial necessity automatically stimulates our creativity.

Here are eight easy ways to create and flip your own innovation switch:

1. Pretend you just ran out of money. Solid cash flow is great, but a steady stream of revenue or a decent chunk of capital can hide opportunities to save money or optimize a process. If you ran out of money, what would you do? Think through as many scenarios as possible and then implement the best ideas. When your back is to the wall and you feel you have no choice, that's often the time you'll come up with the greatest number of choices.

2. Imagine the worst that could happen. What if you lose your biggest customer? What if you lose your job? What if your industry tanks? What if a major competitor entered your market? Your answers could uncover unexpected opportunities or lead to changes in overall strategy.

3. Play the "Why?" game. Five Whys is a standard tool in the root cause analysis toolkit; the premise is to ask "Why?" at least five times to hopefully reach the true reason for an error. But you don't have to wait for a mistake. Pick a current practice or approach and ask yourself why you do it. Then keep asking. The more times you ask "Why?" after an answer, the more likely you are to see a problem in a new way.

4. Pretend the rule book got lost. Every business has unwritten and written rules, and each of us follow external and self-imposed rules too. But what would you do if you weren't allowed to use current guidelines to solve a problem? What if you no longer had to ask your boss for permission? What if you couldn't turn to HR for advice? What if your partner couldn't bail you out or cover for you? What if you could change the way you develop employees? Mentally break a few rules -- especially if they are your rules. Often a "rule" isn't 't really a rule; it's just the way we've always done things.

5. Pretend you only have five minutes to solve a problem. Speed is also the mother of innovation. Pick a problem and force yourself to make a decision within five minutes. Imagine you only have five minutes to decide how to deal with a cash flow crunch. If you had to decide right now, what would you do? It's easy to play out multiple scenarios and get lost in the weeds of options. Snap decisions can be the right decisions because they cut to the heart of an issue.

6. Imagine perfection. Say you want to improve a process. Typically we approach improvement as a percentage-gain: Reduce costs by 3%, decrease re-work by 4%... we're trained to seek incremental gains. But what if your goal was perfection? If something had to be perfect, what would you need to do?

I've told this story before but it's worth repeating. Prior to an upcoming budget cycle I didn't ask a machine operator if he had any ideas for how we could increase productivity by 3%. Instead I said, "What if you had to ensure your machine never went down unexpectedly? What would we need to do?" He spent an hour listing every conceivable reason his equipment mis-fed, jammed, and otherwise shut down, and then we thought of ways to eliminate each reason. Then we implemented his ideas: we changed a lot of processes, put an employee on a different lunch schedule so he could perform preventive maintenance while the line was idle, increased the usage of a number of components.... We didn't reach perfection but within three months productivity was up 32% and the ROI on additional expense was over 800%.

7. Screw up intentionally. Innovation experts recommend constant experimentation, but just thinking of an experiment requires a level of creativity I often can't manage. If you're like me, pick a task or process that works well. Then intentionally screw it up and see what happens. (Pick something that doesn't cost money or impact a customer relationship, though.) Say the first thing you do every day is check your email. Tomorrow wait an hour and see what happens. I'll bet you notice at least one advantage to waiting: checking in "live" with employees a little sooner, handling a few tasks that help others get a jump on their day, or simply being proactive instead of reacting to emails. Adopt what worked. Easy.

8. Take a field trip -- and borrow freely. Industry cross-fertilization rarely happens because we typically stay in our own silos. I learned more from a trip to a food processing plant than I could implement in a year at our book manufacturing plant. A lawyer friend bases how his firm "touches" clients on what he learned from a high-end retailer. A heavy equipment manufacturer tours a different plant every month to improve their safety programs. Somewhere, someone is doing something really well. Borrow it, because to your business it's an innovation.

Related: Photo courtesy flickr user acaben , CC 2.0
  • Jeff Haden On Twitter»

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    Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business from managing a 250-employee book manufacturing plant. Everything else he picked up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest CEOs and leaders in business. He has written more than 30 non-fiction books, including four Business and Investing titles that reached #1 on Amazon's bestseller list. Follow him on Twitter at @Jeff_Haden.

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