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5 Tips for Driving Innovation in SMEs

9 May 2017

Businesses that are innovating and doing things differently are three times more likely to grow, says Alan Morrow, Innovation Manager at InterTradeIreland.

Innovation has become a key differentiator for firms seeking to thrive and compete more effectively. In the face of increasing demands for customer value, firms are looking at ways to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of their innovation processes.

While over two thirds of innovative firms have ambitions for growth, those that have a formal process in place to manage development in the business are in shorter supply. The lack of a formal, managed process to support innovation may mean that firms' plans for innovation are inextricably linked with the owner manager or they are left relying on “brainstorming” for new ideas and concepts. While this approach may be suitable for idea generation it does not offer a step-by-step approach to engage employees, manage the innovation process and turn ideas into new sales.

Following these five steps can help drive innovation in your SME:

1. Help staff develop and work on ideas that are linked to strategy and priorities.

  • Make sure you communicate what the company is trying to do and clearly identify where new ideas would be most useful – new products, efficiency improvements, ideas for entering a new market, ideas to help customer retention – whatever your priorities are.
  • Make it clear that you will welcome ideas and will encourage people who are passionate about their ideas.
  • Provide clear guidance on the boundaries for new ideas – types of ideas you are NOT interested in, constraints in terms of resources or legislation etc.

2. Train and encourage staff to look for stimulus that will help them create valuable new ideas.

  • Make it easy for staff to speak to customers about all aspects of their experience with your products or services.
  • Make competitor reviews a regular event that involve staff from different parts of the business with different insights.
  • Hold “Blue Sky Thinking” days where groups of employees build on established trends in technology, customers, and society to predict what products and services might be valued in the future.
  • Train staff to look at new and emerging technologies, in your own and other fields, that could be a source of new ideas, licensing, or collaboration for faster innovation.

3. Prioritise greater levels of collaboration inside and outside the business

  • Show how diversity in thinking styles multiply the quality and quantity of ideas from brainstorming or other idea generation sessions.
  • Encourage staff to look for help much more quickly to solve problems when evaluating and commercialising new ideas.
  • Establish trusted networks that people can tap into for advice and guidance on potential innovations.

4. Drive out fear to ensure that winning ideas accelerate towards commercialisation

  • Make it clear that most new ideas fail and that success will come from having poor ideas fail faster and cheaper so that more energy can be expended on ideas with a better chance of success.
  • Encourage a spirit of action-orientation where learning is the goal from short-duration experiments and trials. Every time you learn how something won’t work you are closer to finding out how it can be done.
  • Make it safe for people to try new things. “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” is a well-known saying that can discourage curiosity and innovation. Instead reflect that “The good is the enemy of the great” and use this to encourage your people to continually look for ways to make your existing products, services, and processes even better.

5. Educate, educate, educate

  • Train your staff in the key principles and skills of innovation.
  • Ensure that it is easy for new learning to be integrated into the way things are done.
  • Recognise those people who are curious, try new things, and demonstrate their own commitment to continual learning.

Help is at hand!

As MD or CEO of your business, ask yourself … Does your sector demand innovation but you are typically bad at ideas, or do tonnes of ideas float around forever without ever really going anywhere?

If you have answered yes to the above or are interested in finding out more, consider InterTradeIreland’s FREE Challenge Programmewhere you can learn a method that could increase your speed to market by around six times as well as decrease cost and risk by up to 80%.

The method is underpinned by decades of research and data into how to successfully open up new markets, maximise your profitability and create and commercialise new products and services. So what’s not to like?

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