Q: How do you keep a business innovative from year to year?

The fact is many companies will never innovate, and a large majority of those will never need to. Without a doubt, innovation will give companies and their owners staying power, but many companies don’t intend to enter the broad market. Most owners are happy flying under the radar and making mediocre returns picking up the scraps from other, more innovative, and most times larger, companies.
Innovation is like an oil change: preventive maintenance. The fruits of your endeavors, if done correctly, may not be realized for years or even decades after the innovation process has started. All too often I see companies beginning to show signs of insolvency or of poor culture and slowing sales, and then they catch the bug and try to innovate. Unfortunately, they’ve completely missed the opportunity. Innovation starts with culture, and many companies don’t offer an opportunity to frame the culture or to embed innovation as one of the hallmarks of the organization.
For the companies that choose to innovate, I would propose a dual approach. First, create a culture of innovators and support it with talented leaders and managers that can incite innovation from all levels of the organization. Second, create the time and opportunities for the people in your business to learn how to be innovative. Unfortunately, innovation is costly and time intensive. However, I’ll share a few tips for innovating on the run.
First, create a culture of innovators by realizing they come in all shapes and sizes. Most modern systems for operational productivity and efficiency do not reward innovators or creatives. Make sure to not only hire creatives but to also find a way to incentivize them to stay. Remind them how important they are to the organization.
Next, imagine an incentive program that would keep employees thinking about better processes, better outcomes for the customer, and ways to create better revenues for the organization. Incentives are not always financial. Research suggests that most employees would prefer a day off than additional pay.
Lastly, teach people what creativity is. Most of my research revolves around creativity and the fact that it can most certainly be taught. There are special primers and exercises to help people think more creatively that also work well in the workplace. Most times, the longer an employee works at an organization, the more likely they are to create shortcuts and process refinements that could be highly beneficial to the organization. A lot of creative people are simply lazy. Laziness is at the root of people finding the best processes to get things done. It’s because they want to do as little work as possible. Teach employees to be “lazy.”
Keep in mind that innovation is like a person who plants a tree but may never enjoy the shade of that tree. Innovation, most times, is something that’s going to benefit the organization for a very long time, but the innovation work starts now. So “get lazy” and start innovating!
Dr. Ralph Griffith is a Biltmore Park resident and an associate professor of entrepreneurship at Lenoir-Rhyne University. Ralph and his wife, Nahrain (a scientist), also own Blue Ridge Auto Club & Conservatory and Lamassu Arak. Ralph has taught at Oxford, Stanford and Yale Universities. Email Ralph at ralphmgriffith@gmail.com.