Debra Kaye is an international innovation expert specializing in culture and marketing strategy for consumer brands, defining new areas of business opportunity, developing new products, and restructuring markets for long-term growth. She encourages her clients to become change-makers, and has helped set agendas for companies such as L’Oreal, Mars Petcare, American Express, Dove Chocolate, Groupe Danone, McDonald’s, Absolut Vodka, Kimberly Clark, Banco Santander, Johnson & Johnson, Colgate, Clairol, Reckitt Benckiser, and Sony. Her book Red Thread Thinking: Weaving Together Connections that Lead to Brilliant Ideas and Profitable Innovation — one of the only books on innovation ever written by a woman.
Innovation and small business growth is what saves global economies and is our best defense too. Example Brazil: small and medium size-enterprises (SMEs) are now responsible for 96% of the jobs in Brazil and comprise 98% of all companies in the country, having proliferated since 1995. In the U.S., according to the SBA, small businesses generated over 65% of net new jobs in the past 17 years, employ half of all private sector employees, and produce 13 times more patents per employee than equivalent large firms. In February alone, small business added 77,000 jobs while large organizations added just 57,000, a trend seen during many months prior according to ADP Research Institute.
Small business innovation is the David to the Goliath of our continuing economic slump. Why? Because great innovation may not happen in large, complex, overly bureaucratic organizations; small businesses are more agile, with fewer layers of management hierarchies and protocols. Smaller, more agile communities may be where the innovators of tomorrow emerge from – or migrate to.
Innovation demands looking at the world differently, and finding connections between seemingly disconnected things, which is what I call Red Thread Thinking. You can develop new relationships between what you already have on hand or access existing knowledge, and can combine these elements in new ways to innovate products and services.
Here are five tips for weaving together unexpected threads to better tap into your company’s capacity to get past fixed ideas and assumptions to think outside of predetermined boxes—using the greater agility of smallness as the ultimate business weapon.
- Innovation – It’s all in your head. Big company brainstorming doesn’t open up creativity; it can slam the door on it. Studies show that people working alone conceive more fresh ideas than brainstorming groups. This is because your brain can’t make the free-flowing innovative connections of which it’s capable in the rigid format of brainstorming sessions. There is too much peer influence and pressure to contribute. Red Thread Tip: Let your smallness work to your advantage and give folks the space they need to ideate and think like an entrepreneur.
- Everything old is new. Conventional wisdom holds that innovation is about the future, but it is actually about what’s already present. You are not starting with a blank slate. The past provides a deep and provocative well of information, ideas, and insights. Take a fresh look at what’s gone before, and rework or tweak it to meet a need and gain remarkable advantage. For example, the Gutenberg Press, which forever changed the world of communication, was based on ancient Chinese moveable type, the wine press from the vintners in Rhineland and Gutenberg’s own metallurgy experience. Red Thread Tip: As most “original” ideas aren’t completely original, reexamine your current assets, question how they can be used in different ways, or look how other industries might find use for them. There may just be new ideas within those that already exist.
- People –the strangest animals at the zoo. The spontaneous, unpredictable nature of innovation makes it difficult to know all the outcomes in advance. Make sure employees have the opportunity to speak up when an innovation is headed the wrong way; it may be better to pull the plug than try to fix. Attempts to rigidly hold to corporate protocol, management hierarchies and strict rules can sometimes end up costing an awful lot of money. Red Thread Tip: Endorse unexpected questions, challenge existing assumptions and have the guts to pull the plug when warranted. You’ll save a lot of time and money by allowing people to fail fast and fearlessly.
- What you see is what you get. Communicate your new idea in a way that gives consumers an immediate picture of its point of difference. Iconography — the perfect reduction of information to a single, unmistakable sign that can be quickly communicated — seems to be the forgotten stepchild of design strategy, language and simplification. Red Thread Tip: Make your idea so simple, capture it in an image or combination of few words and images with such clarity, that everyone will understand it. “I heart New York” has an immediate impact and sense of energetic fun missing from “I love New York.”
- The force of passion. Passion is power. When you believe in yourself, you actually generate more good ideas and innovative concepts. Successful entrepreneurs have the ability to take the personal and professional risks that will benefit and build their businesses. When the project model is off the mark, they shift and pivot, seeking the needed improvements to get it right. With passion, you can persevere through the challenges and win. Red Thread Tip: Attitude and belief in your own abilities makes you more curious and open-minded. The more you believe you can stretch yourself, the more you will think of your capacity to be smarter, and begin to fulfill your own expectation.
Don’t forget to check out the Business Fuel podcast interview with Debra that will be published tomorrow.