Benjamin Franklin, one of the US founding fathers, said that most people miss opportunity because it shows up in overalls and looks a lot like work. The same can be said of innovation. The word conjures up cool gadgets and clever ideas, but in practice, innovation involves a lot of hard work and is often more practical than sexy.
Another popular misconception about innovation is that it is the work of exclusive creative geniuses, working alone. On the contrary though, by adopting a few basic habits of mind, business leaders can train themselves to be more attuned to finding better ways of doing things – which is a different way of saying being innovative.
So, as South Africans brace themselves for an increasingly tough 2016, here are four of my top innovation habits that business leaders can cultivate to help them ride out the storm.
1. Don’t throw money at the problem
Instead of paying consultants or getting outsiders to tell you how to fix problems in your organisation, ask your people for suggestions. Employees are the ones at the coal face after all, and they will often have the answers. “The knee-jerk reaction is to say the problem is a lack of budget, or skills, or training,” says Professor Norman Faull, director of the Lean Institute Africa. “But this is not a sensible way of thinking.” Faull recommends that you first take stock of what you have and then reorganise, eliminate waste, and liberate the capacity that is already there to unlock innovation.
The acknowledged innovation giants (Google, Apple, 3M etc.) all have at their core an innovation culture that motivates and encourages staff to step forward with their ideas.
2. Keep one eye on the future
Always think ahead. No matter how stressful the present, there will always be opportunities. History is full of examples of innovative thinkers who were able to run successful businesses in hard times because they saw things coming. Take Floyd Bostwick Odlum, a US investor who became one of the country’s wealthiest men during the Great Depression after seeing how markets were behaving before the crash and selling stock instead of buying it.
Applying your mind to the future is a key habit of innovative thinkers, says Gareth Reese, senior manager with the Deloitte strategy and innovation team. Reese told students at the UCT Graduate School of Business (GSB) Business Tomorrow conference recently: “If you are focusing on responding to current trends, it’s already too late.”
3. Think about how you can add value
There is a global business shift towards social innovation. In emerging market economies like South Africa, there is a need for social venture entrepreneurs who are able to come up with viable business plans to solve social and environmental challenges – from education and health to water scarcity.
Take Lakheni, a new social venture established by two MBA students from the GSB that has won awards and big venture capitalist-funding for its bulk-buying grocery-shopping service for parents and crèches in underprivileged areas. This simple idea makes people’s lives easier and saves them money, while the crèche benefits and the business makes a decent profit as well.
“What was critical for us was looking into a system, not to fix what we thought to be broken, but to find what is working and building on its strengths,” says Lakheni co-founder, Nokwethu Khojane.
4. Always look for efficiencies
Khojane’s words highlight another truth for innovation today: the world does not necessarily need more products or new technologies, but rather better services and more efficient ways of doing things. The secret of the success of AirBnB and Uber is not just that they are clever services using clever technology – it is because they give people something they need in a more convenient and cost effective way.
The future may look more challenging than we would like right now, but there are literally dozens of industries and organisations that are crying out for new and better ways of doing things to which these principles or habits could easily be applied.
Don’t wait for better times. The time for innovation is right under our noses – and seizing it might make the different between success and failure in tough times.