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9 tips to make your SME more innovative

Published on 12th June 2018

Developing innovation within your business

In a world where markets are becoming increasingly more competitive, studies have shown that innovation is vital for the success and long-term sustainability of any business. Every business is different (size, sector, goals, location, how long they have traded for, etc) and there is no one size fits all approach to implementing innovation due to this uniqueness.

What is key is realising that innovation can occur in any part of a business and ensuring that, as a company, you’re open to identifying opportunities for change and continual development.

With this in mind, the following are my tips for developing innovation within your business: –

  1. Find time to look beyond your core business.
    With existing customers to keep happy or orders to meet, sometimes it is difficult to find the time to step out of the day to day schedule. However, as a business, it is important to find time to look outside the business for opportunities and threats, in order to react to market changes, minimise risks and not fall behind the competition, and stay on top of the latest developments and trends in your industry.
  2. Be creative.
    When generating ideas, it is important not to limit yourself or rule out any ideas. You may initially think something is not possible or silly, but once it has been tabled others may be able to provide the knowledge which could make it a reality, or it could even provide the inspiration for them to spin out a related concept. Don’t just think about innovation in terms of product or service provision, but consider all areas of your business for improvements. Innovation can be a giant leap in technology, or a series or incremental developments which grow your business take it to a better level than it was previously.
  3. Make sure its meaningful.
    What is important is you are innovating towards a meaningful goal. Is there a need or demand? Does it address a problem or challenge? Is it fit for purpose? Is it cost effective? Is it sustainable? Is it compliant? These are all early questions you can quickly ask to check if your idea has potential to take further. If not, maybe you should consider if there is a better opportunity to try to exploit.
  4. Be ruthless.
    Once you have developed a list of ideas or opportunities, you can then begin to review and prioritise them. Your time and resources are limited, so you can only effectively work on a selection (dependant on your company size) at once. Make sure to only invest time, money and energy in concepts that show the greatest likelihood of success, and also use a fail fast/fail cheap approach, so that resources are not wasted, and you can quickly move onto the next priority in your ideas bank.
  5. Mistakes are ok!
    Don’t be afraid of making mistakes or of failure. Even the most innovative companies make mistakes or begin working on a concept that ultimately fails. What is important is to learn from those mistakes and use this knowledge for the future to develop those winning ideas.
  6. Employee engagement.
    Build a culture of innovation within the organisation at every level. Your employees are bursting at the seams with ideas, so not tapping into this resource is a wasted opportunity. Encourage ownership and give them the time and freedom they need to develop new ideas, and also create opportunities for different types of employees / departments / teams to come together to create ideas and develop solutions.
  7. Collaboration.
    Your business or the employees within may be quite capable of handling their specific areas of focus. But each will have its own strengths and weaknesses, and as a result products, services, and profits will suffer unless you can identify these weaknesses and address them. One way to do this is though partnering with others (both internal and external to the business) in order to fill skills gaps, connect ideas, reduce the time to market, share resources, and undertake workloads not possible alone in order to maximise the potential of the business. This collective intelligence is also a great opportunity for learning.
  8. Know your customers.
    Understanding your customers and fostering meaningful relationships with them is core to innovation. They will tell you what they need or want, which can guide you. Negative and positive feedback is a gift for innovation. Understand your customers and build relationships with them to ensure that you’re aware of what they like or dislike about your offerings and your competitors, and use this when making your plans for development.
  9. What’s next?
    Keep going! The world around us is always changing, markets develop, and there are always improvements you can make within your business or to your offerings. So, it is important that you continue your innovation journey in order to remain one step ahead of your competitors and preserve the long-term future of the business. It can be challenging, but it is stimulating and worthwhile.

About the author

Neil Ryan

Neil is responsible for leading the development, implementation, delivery, and monitoring of the Co-Innovate Programme on behalf of the six programme partners.

Neil Ryan has extensive experience of developing innovation strategies, managing operations, and leading product / process development activities having spent seventeen years working for manufacturing companies within the private sector. Before joining InterTradeIreland in March 2017, his previous role was as Technical Director of a Japanese owned multi-national business based in Northern Ireland, and was also a board member of the Northern Ireland Polymer Association.

He holds a Hons degree in Mechanical Engineering and also has a Master of Philosophy for research into polymer science, both from the Queen’s University of Belfast. He is a Chartered Member of the Chartered Management Institute and has a Diploma in Company Direction with the Institute of Directors.

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