How to turn an idea into a game changer

Despite all the lip service paid to innovation by corporate leaders and the worship showered upon ‘ideas men’ such as Richard Branson, Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos, the harsh reality is that most people and organisations simply aren’t innovative.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that you don’t need to be freakishly gifted to come up with a clever business idea yourself – you just need to create the conditions in which creativity can thrive. Here are five tips on how to do it.

1. Invest in innovation

Resources should be allocated to innovation, even if it’s just giving employees time to brainstorm ideas. The key is to consider it as an investment, rather than an expenditure – open your business to a free flow of ideas and chances are your staff will develop ways to streamline processes or even develop new products.

2. Start small

Attempting to turn your organisation into Apple and yourself into a mini Steve Jobs overnight is likely to end in tears. Instead, get your staff together and ask them to come up with ideas that could reduce costs, save time or improve customer service. Implement at least one idea immediately to demonstrate you’re serious about introducing innovation and that good ideas will be acted upon.

3. Don’t get sucked into the idea that all innovations have to be world-changing

Toyota became the world’s largest car maker not because it focused on making the world’s most futuristic cars but because it fostered innovation across its business operations, including in less ‘sexy’ areas such as inventory control. Don’t lose sight of the fact that creating a new invoicing system can be just as profitable as developing an attention-grabbing product or service.

4. Rethink what you recognise and reward

Despite the media attention given to charismatic geniuses, innovative products and services are usually group efforts. Possibly the biggest roadblock to innovation is workplace cultures based on competition rather than collaboration. Only the boldest employee is going to stick their neck out and suggest a new approach if their office rivals are likely to mock or sabotage their new initiative. If you want out-of-the-box thinking, you have to create a safe and supportive atmosphere in which it can flourish.

5. Understand that innovation is 99 per cent perspiration, 1 per cent inspiration

Contrary to popular belief, industry-revolutionising concepts rarely pop into people’s heads fully formed. Innovative companies get that way because they’re prepared to invest lots of time and money into the hard and unglamorous grind of generating lots of new ideas and then refining the ones that seem to have promise. That typically involves some or all of the following: weekly brainstorming sessions, an employee suggestion box, regular analysis of what innovations competitors are introducing, attendance at industry workshops and speeches given by industry leaders, regularly holding “Stop, Start, Improve” meetings with staff and replicating innovation-fostering initiatives introduced by other companies.

In an increasingly fast-paced business environment, continual innovation is the only guarantee of a company’s long-term viability. A company that isn’t obsessed with doing things cheaper, cleaner, faster, safer and more profitably risks being made obsolete sooner or later by a competitor that is.

This article represents the views of the author only and not those of American Express.