In my experience with business leaders, real innovation thinking is rare compared to the urge to add just one more feature to an existing product or make a small tweak to an existing business model.
For example, BlackBerry was really the first in the smart mobile phone market, but the company never thought beyond their tiny physical keyboard as they added new features. Meanwhile, Apple and Google came up with real innovation through touchscreen logic and a whole new user interface controlled by finger swipes and even voice and image recognition. BlackBerry was left behind.
For most of us, the longer we have done things a certain way, the harder it is to think outside the box and find more innovative ways to change. Yet I believe it is possible -- and even more fun -- to challenge your thinking and practices, to develop that innovative mindset that can keep you on the forefront of business. Here are a few key initiatives that I always recommend:
1. Look outside your normal scope for alternatives.
One way to do this is to nurture mentoring relationships with experts in other disciplines, as Bill Gates did with Warren Buffett. Plus you can challenge yourself to keep abreast of technology advancements in related industries, looking for a fit in your own. Always practice thinking outside the box.
For example, Elon Musk, who owns many battery patents, normally kept for a competitive edge, decided to open them all to any competitors in an effort to expand the market for his electric vehicles. The result is that Tesla is leading the industry in growth for all vehicles.
2. Challenge every "business-as-usual" addition you see.
Make clear to your team and everyone around you that the "normal" thinking pattern and culture is not acceptable and will not be tolerated. Generously reward your team for learning from innovative ideas, including failures. Keep a list of changes evaluated and tag each as linear or innovative.
In particular, new generations of customers, including Millennials, are often looking for something really innovative, as the fashion industry has found out many times. The linear change in year-to-year fashions that has served you well may soon be your downfall.
3. Develop a welcoming mindset for new trends and change.
You need to see these as opportunities for growth and a chance to get ahead of competition. Don't wait for a crisis to force change thinking. Promote change in team culture and provide support through smart hiring, attending industry conferences, and periodic training for all team members.
It's easy to jump to the conclusion after some initial business success that you can relax and keep doing what you're doing without further pivots. My advice is never to fall into that trap and remember that change is the norm, so face reality.
4. Develop strategic partnerships with key industry players.
This will allow you to take advantage of complementary strengths and new ways of thinking. It will also force you to look more broadly both in your industry and outside for innovative ways to combine new customer sets, resources, and ways to use existing assets to grow your business.
With today's pervasive internet and a global economy, the opportunities are endless. There is some evidence that strategic pairing of wildly different companies has tremendous value for both and leads to some of the most innovative growth strategies.
5. Initiate a regular program of customer experiments.
It's always good to ask customers what they want, but it's even better to give them something new to evaluate before you roll it out in a big way. I recommend that you set targets -- like planning for a new experiment each month -- and then measure each for acceptance and return impact.
Amazon has long been a leader in change experiments, and Jeff Bezos credits much of his growth and success to this initiative. He believes that if you double the number of experiments per year, you're going to double your ability to outpace the competition.
In all cases, even with the right mindset, it's important to remember that coming up with innovative ideas and implementing them requires more than a flash of inspiration and much perspiration. It requires a rigorous process, great leadership, and a committed team. If business success is important to you, I recommend that you start today on all the initiatives outlined here.