When it comes time to reflect on the impact of the pandemic, one major story will be just how innovative so many small businesses had to become. In a near instant, entrepreneurs were forced to find new ways to distribute products, create offerings that didn’t exist, and start up e-commerce stores to help them compete with major retailers. 

But what happens now, with the initial shock of the pandemic long gone and the global economy starting to open up again? Can companies continue to innovate, or will they go back to business as usual? Some will get wrapped back up in the day-to-day of running a business, says Angèle Beausoleil, an assistant professor of business design and innovation at the Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, but it is possible to keep more innovation coming.

1. Be more proactive about innovation

There were two types of innovators during the pandemic, says Beausoleil-- those who reacted to what was going on and those who proactively decided to do something different. Most companies fell into the former category - they simply shifted gears to stay afloat - but others saw an opportunity to do something new. Many distilleries, for instance, used their existing equipment to make hand sanitizer, which, she says, is a good example of proactive innovation.

“They said we’ve got our manufacturing facilities, why don’t we just change what we’re putting inside the bottle? Those are the incredible moments where someone took a calculated risk to introduce a kind of quasi-new product that allowed them to use their facilities in an optimized way. It’s a positive reaction to the pandemic, rather than saying, ‘Oh no-- the sky is falling.’” 

It’s important for companies to remain proactive, especially if the pressure to react is no longer there. That doesn’t mean launching a new disruptive technology - many people do equate innovation with disruption, which isn’t right, says Beausoleil - but rather, using existing equipment and resources to do something different. “We don’t talk enough about the idea of repurposing your current systems,” she says. “Use what you have in completely new ways.”

 2. Develop an innovative mindset

While some people are more innovative than others, innovation is something that can be learned, says Beausoleil. The first lesson? Be curious. “You need a genuine curiosity and to be open to new experiences and looking at things in new ways,” she explains. 

You also need to question everything, especially the status quo. “You have to create a culture where you might have more questions than answers, and that is very important to helping you adopt and adapt to new ways of working and customer needs.” 

That combination of curiosity and questioning leads to what’s called a learning mindset, which is the foundation of innovation, she says. What you don’t want to do is confuse confidence with curiosity. “Are you more confident in what you currently know than curious about what you don’t know, particularly when it comes to your customers’ needs?” she asks. “I often see that confidence tip into arrogance, and arrogance will kill you every single time.”

 3. Build an innovative team

Many entrepreneurs are curious - most businesses are started from someone wondering if there’s a better way to do things - but it’s hard to be innovative when you’re just one person. You need your entire team to think outside of the box, which means hiring people with the right innovation mindset, says Beausoleil. 

Start by hiring staff who are curious and questioning, but it’s also important to attract a diverse group of people who can bring different perspectives and ideas to the table. You’ll want a good mix of genders and racial backgrounds, but also people from different schools and economic upbringings. “You need to truly open yourself up to other people and other ideas,” she says. 

This is easier said than done. Everyone has biases, and it’s easy to hire people who share those same opinions-- even if the group appears to be diverse. It’s important to be mindful of your biases, notes Beausoleil. “You have to think, are you truly looking at different skillsets? You have to learn how to adjust and create cultures with different people and different mindsets-- so you can truly participate in a dialogue that will improve, better, and ultimately impact, not just the bottom line, but the workplace culture.”

4. Budget for innovation 

As people start getting back to some sort of normalcy, entrepreneurs must start baking innovation into their business plans or risk falling behind. One option is to create an innovation budget that sets aside funds for research and development (R&D). Some companies may not have the internal resources to do R&D themselves, in which case they may want to partner with another firm who can help solve customer problems in novel and interesting ways. 

At the very least, build dedicated creative time into an employees’ day or week. “Take a page from the playbook of Google and Shopify and other technology firms who build in innovative time for their staff,” she says. “That allows for lean R&D or micro experiences to occur. And you’re enabling it by putting it into your budget.” 

Ultimately, there’s no excuse for companies to not be innovative, especially given how so many operations pivoted during the pandemic. You don’t need a lot of money; all it really takes is listening to your customers and remembering that when you’re not in the office, you’re a customer who wants better experiences, too. “Put yourself in the customer’s shoes,” says Beausoleil. “Think about how you might want to adapt, pivot, or evolve your business model so that you can be open and ready to change.”

 

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