Leaders in established companies often worry about falling behind. Always looking over your shoulder, you might imagine what your competition is coming up with to solve your customers' problems.

Trying to protect your current service and customer base stifles real innovation

When trying to stay current, you may feel pressure to simultaneously keep AND improve on what you have. It's like pushing the gas and the brake at the same time. It results in incremental improvements rather than anything revolutionary. But what do you lose when you're polishing what you already have instead of digging for another gem?

When growth has stalled, you need another approach, even if what you're doing now has always worked well enough.

Engage your team in a boundary-testing exercise

Adding one new exercise to your team's meeting routine can help determine where you need to continue making small improvements and when you need to invest in a new direction.

Start by gathering your team and telling them to come with open minds and that there are no wrong answers. Get all ideas, thoughts, and challenges on the table to assess and dig into later. Now is the time for "What ifs?" and even concepts that seem far-fetched.

Emphasize that you want the organization to stop spinning its wheels and start growing more. Share the problems or delays you're concerned about, ask for solutions to problems, and help identify problems that maybe you don't see.

This might require you as a leader to show up differently. In this session, you can't shoot down or evaluate the merits of the ideas flowing. Just wind them up and let them go.

Specifically, direct your team to get in your customer's head and heart. An exercise called "six thinking hats" can be a useful tool here. This involves assigning all participants a hat color to represent a specific client, then "putting on" the customer's hat and describing their problems from that point of view as best as they can. Team members should consider how that customer is feeling, what information they need, what they value, what their goals are, and so on. Dividing the group up in this way helps bring forth multiple types of input and suppresses the tendency of a group to just run with a single idea--usually the first.

From here, elicit solutions to client problems brought up by the group in the previous exercise. Give people time to get the predictable, tried-and-true ideas out of the way. The most important thing is to keep going until they feel as though they have no choice but to think outside the box. Once this is done, group ideas according to similar types of solutions.

Lastly, separate those ideas into three categories:

  1. Easy and impactful--let's just start doing this now.
  2. Interesting but hard--let's set this aside and come back to it in a future meeting.
  3. Wow--this will take some effort but the upside for our customers is big. Let's do it.

Exercises like these can be done virtually in whatever collaboration or conferencing tool you're using, in person via a whiteboard, or even shared in a simple document.

Once the brainstorming exercise is complete, write up and distribute an input summary. Keeping the fresh perspectives that have come out in this highly productive session in mind, assemble the team for a follow-up meeting to compare the solutions presented with your service and product offerings.

The purpose of this assessment process is to determine which areas of your process and offerings can be improved with tweaks or new features and what entirely new offerings you will need to develop to move forward.