[This article was originally published on Entrepreneur.com.]
Don’t shy away from innovation because of perceived costs — there are plenty of ways to be an innovative organization without breaking the bank.
In the wake of the global health crisis, customers expect beneficial, safe and agile business experiences. And businesses are providing those experiences: Pharmaceutical companies are producing life-saving vaccines in record time, startups are popping up overnight to meet people’s needs and organizations are pursuing trends that will change the future. The key to meeting customer expectations in this unusual time is continually pushing the innovation envelope.
Humans are quick to romanticize innovation as divine moments of inspiration and progression. In truth, continuous innovation is a discipline that your organization must maintain. It’s not a lightbulb moment — it’s the articulation of a coherent strategy aligning your business objectives. Innovation won’t spontaneously materialize out of your department and align with your service offering.
There are two types of innovation: push and pull. Push innovation occurs with the arrival of a new technological solution; pull innovation is market-driven, arising from a customer challenge that needs a solution. As an entrepreneurial leader, you’re likely keeping tabs on external technology developments and acutely aware of your company’s technological needs. That’s why you must chart the path forward.
You’re uniquely positioned to propel technological innovation. Most companies focused on survival in the wake of COVID-19, but now you need innovative technology and ideas that can support your agility internally and externally. The pandemic might have limited your available budget, but you can still innovate within those constraints.
Making Innovation a Companywide Priority
Startups are often heralded as the most potent sources of technological innovation, which isn’t surprising. Companies like yours are built from the ground up to bring a single cutting-edge technology to life. They’re free from the constraints imposed by a successful business model with thousands of customers, hundreds of employees, detailed supply chains and the operating expenses to match.
Even in this sort of innovation-heavy environment, you must make sure to continue allocating money to current operations and investing in new technology development. Ask yourself questions to help you find that balance, such as: What is the real return of current annual spending? Is there a portion of the budget set aside for innovation? What market needs has my organization not met? Do those market needs align with our business goals? What cutting-edge technology is newly available?
Research from Gartner indicates that IT spending was projected to increase 0.6 percent in 2019 to $3.74 trillion. It’s critical to manage innovation expenditure just like any other line item. If your company puts technological innovation off, you might find that you’re falling behind competitors and making day-to-day work harder than it needs to be.
When Frogslayer sat down with a wholesale logistics company, it became clear its off-the-shelf legacy systems were impacting its ability to operate. By adopting a startup mindset and imagining how they might rebuild their technology stack from the ground up, the company’s leaders were able to identify the features driving the most value. From there, they were about to estimate the innovation investment and compare it against the predicted value. By taking a similar approach, you can also identify pain points and prioritize innovation investments.
How to Be Continuously Innovative
Expensive technology development initiatives that “reinvent” and “revolutionize” sound intriguing and flashy, but there are several low-budget things you can do to encourage and prioritize the ability to innovate in your company. Before you bring in the wrecking ball and make sweeping changes, start with these small steps to pave the way for future technological innovation:
1. Foster employee learning and dialogue
Give employees opportunities to share their skills and knowledge. That might mean having senior employees go over best practices for a given domain, encouraging new recruits to research areas that interest them or offering talented individuals the chance to demonstrate new skills that could help others. These dialogues can occur on digital forums, in video meetings or even at in-person “lunch and learns.”
You can also give employees external opportunities to learn and grow, which can then be relayed to the rest of the company. For example, the tech company Optoro encourages its employees to attend conferences and programs while providing each individual with a professional development budget. Encouraging continued education and effective communication in your company is a good investment that promotesinnovation.
2. Host regular hackathons
Specific technological business challenges come up all the time, but they’re often set aside as something to solve when more time or resources are available. Instead of letting those challenges evaporate, make a list that you can keep handy. Every quarter, pinpoint one or two challenges that can serve as the basis for a hackathon.
These cross-functional events bring together company teams and result in myriad benefits, including improved trust, increased cohesion and better collaboration. Plus, they can lead to tangible products or solutions. For example, Facebook has been hosting internal hackathons since 2007. Every few months, hundreds of company engineers get together with their laptops to solve problems, pitch ideas and create or improve Facebook products.
3. Encourage your employees to observe other roles and departments
You don’t have to place your employees in the sales department for three months, but it’s useful to have personnel see how other business departments operate. Mind Gym schedules a companywide meeting every week to allow each team to talk about its wins, losses and ongoing work. Although weekly meetings might be too much for your company, you could do something like allow employees or teams an opportunity to observe different departments of individuals for one day each quarter.
Arrange for your employees to sit in on a quarterly sales pipeline report, a recently released demo from the development team or the C-suite’s weekly roundup. After the session, have your employees share and discuss their primary takeaways. What did people learn that could be translated into technology development?
It’s important to encourage technological innovation in your organization, but you can’t ignore the budget to accomplish this task. Rather than spending a fortune, learn how to be innovative when money is tight by following these three steps to prepare your organization to adopt and integrate future innovation investments.
Alex Tapper is the head of client strategy and services at Frogslayer, a custom software development and digital innovation firm. Clients partner with Frogslayer to rapidly build, launch, and scale software products and digitals platforms that create new revenue streams and competitive advantages.