Caribbean Catalyst Inc., the organisers of the Barbados’ Best Employers (BBE) programme celebrated its 10th anniversary on April 1, 2015, with a corporate breakfast for business professionals and participants in the BBE programme. Attendees were fortunate to benefit from a pre-recorded presentation by John Spence, a Top 100 Business Thought Leader and best-selling author of the book Awesomely Simple.
Spence’s presentation on how to be a leader of the future and how to be successful in “the new normal” was filled with a number of very important points which business leaders will find useful (You can check out Spence’s entire presentation here). One point highlighted by Spence was that we live in an era of rapid innovation, and to be successful in the future, a company’s rate of internal innovation must exceed the rate of external innovation. Spence’s point makes perfect sense. If a company’s rate of innovation does not at least match the rate of innovation of its industry, or the rate of innovation of the wider business environment, that business will automatically fall behind. And falling behind the pack is something no business wants to do.
In recent years, many Barbadian companies, like their global counterparts, have been forced to slash budgets in an attempt to cut costs and remain competitive. It seemed as if no business was immune to budget cuts; no industry recession-proof. Business leaders, employees and observers have all contributed to an orchestra of voices reinforcing the need to “tighten our belts” and reduce costs – and with very good reason. The persistently challenging global economy means that Barbadian businesses simply cannot afford to waste a single dollar. However, John Spence’s observation about innovation raises a sobering issue for Barbadian businesses because it places innovation (not cost-cutting) at the heart of competitiveness. In other words, even with a strict diet of belt-tightening, we simply cannot cost-cut our way to competitiveness – not when our global competitors are hard at work innovating.
Belt–Tightening vs. Shoelace–Tightening
There’s an old business joke that goes something like this:
Two hikers were making their way through the forest when they encountered a massive bear in their path. The first hiker immediately bent down and started tightening his shoelaces, obviously intent on making a run for it. The second hiker looked at him incredulously and yelled: “What the hell are you doing? You can’t possibly outrun a bear!” The first hiker took off on a brisk sprint and called out over his shoulder, “I don’t have to outrun the bear. I just have to outrun you”.
The point of the semi-humorous, semi-morbid story of the bear and the hikers is that sometimes, you just have to tighten your shoelaces (make improvements to your ability to be competitive) and take off on a brisk sprint. Remember Spence’s point about innovation? The goal is for your rate of innovation to exceed the rate of innovation of your competitors.
Philosophically, in a business context, tightening our shoelaces is somewhat different from tightening our belts. When most businesspeople speak of tightening their belts, more often than not, they’re speaking solely of cost-cutting measures. Using our intrepid first hiker as a reference point, shoelace-tightening refers to taking a look at our resources and taking innovative measures to be more effective. For businesspeople trying to remain competitive, both belt-tightening activities and shoelace-tightening activities may very well be necessary, but one activity is not a substitute for the other.
Shoelace-tightening may come in many different flavours. Some businesses may innovate by streamlining their operations so they can reduce production time. Others may decide to focus on developing new and exciting products. And still others may come up with better ways to market their products and communicate their products’ benefits to potential customers. The options for tightening your shoelaces are virtually endless.
If you are a leader in your company and you’re thinking that your organisation needs to engage in a shoelace-tightening strategy, here are a few things to consider:
- Honesty is the best policy
If you’re not where you’d like to be on the innovation scale, it’s best to be up front with yourself and with your employees. Bestselling author, Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, notes that “You absolutely cannot make a series of good decisions without first confronting the brutal facts.” Let your employees know about your plans to improve and explain why the company needs to get better at innovating.
- The call to tighten shoelaces must have a high-level champion
The call to innovate must come from the organisation’s highest level of leadership. If an organisation is to develop a true culture of innovation, the leadership must send a strong, uncompromising signal to all team members that workplace innovation is absolutely critical to the organisation’s ability to survive. CEOs and their management teams must champion the cause and be genuinely committed to developing a culture where innovation is encouraged and rewarded.
- Your company culture is important
Don’t expect your employees to be overjoyed about being innovative if your culture is divisive, disrespectful or distasteful. If you are really serious about tightening your business’ shoelaces, you have to develop a culture where the interests of employees are aligned with the interests of the company, and team members are excited about helping the company to grow. If you’re looking to change your company culture for the better, there are a number of books you can turn to for inspiration. Three great reads are Great by Choice by Jim Collins, Awesomely Simple by John Spence and Delivering Happiness by Tony Hseih.
- Your organisation needs all hands on deck
If a company is to achieve its true innovation potential, all team members, including senior management, front-line staff and even the most junior entry-level employees will need to contribute to the company’s innovation strategy. And this isn’t going to happen by chance. If you’re interested in understanding more about what motivates employees, check out Daniel Pink’s awesome book called Drive.
- You probably shouldn’t leave innovation to chance
Some companies such as 3M and Google have structured programmes which allow employees to spend a certain percentage of their time working on their own projects. This strategy, sometimes known as Innovation Time Off (or ITO) is responsible for 3M products such as the Post-It Note, and for Google products such as Gmail and Google Earth. It’s worth noting that organisational culture heavily impacts structured innovation programmes like those found at 3M or Google, and that this strategy may not be right for every company. If you’d like to know more about the pros and cons of ITO, click here to read a pretty interesting article on the topic. If ITO isn’t your cup o’ tea, you can put brainstorming sessions on your company calendar and use those sessions to come up with ways to be more innovative.
- You don’t always have to reinvent the wheel
Chances are, companies similar to yours have encountered challenges that you can identify with, and have found great ways to innovate. Be sure to do your research and lace your brainstorming sessions with inspiring examples and benchmarks (Just in case you missed it, the “lace” reference was a pun on shoelaces). Be sure to benchmark notable innovations from companies within your industry and from companies outside of your industry. Share these examples with your team and encourage them to come up with ways to be more innovative.
- You don’t always need a big budget to innovate
Sure, it would be great to have a huge research and development budget, but even if you don’t, all isn’t lost. Sometimes necessity (not a big budget) is the mother of invention. By making innovation a part of your company culture, you and your employees can still find ways to tighten your shoelaces on a shoestring budget. (See what we did there? “Tighten your shoelaces on a shoestring budget.” Okay, that’s the last shoelace pun. We promise).
If the thought of creating a culture of innovation sounds overwhelming, remember that the best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. And if the thought of eating an elephant sounds unappealing, try a different cliché. Maybe “a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step”. Take that first step and keep the momentum going. You might be pleasantly surprised about how your team responds to your shoe-tightening initiatives.
The story of the bear and the hikers is for analogy purposes only and is not intended to provide guidance on actual bear encounters. No bears (or hikers for that matter) were hurt during the research and writing of this article. For information on how to avoid a real bear encounter, please click here. For more information on Blueprint Creative, please click here to visit our website or click here to follow our LinkedIn Company Page. If you need a hand developing a culture which values innovation, please feel free to reach out to us.