Getting close to customers, partners, suppliers, other employees and understanding their motivations, how they think, feel and behave is at the heart of innovation
Everyone has ideas – every person in your team will be having some kind of thought about how your franchise is being run.
Their ideas will span a whole range of areas: from ways to attract more customers to how you could work more efficiently to ways to improve the working environment. All these ideas could be increasing your profits.
But many of these ideas will never see the light of day. Why? Perhaps your team feels that the door is not open to new ideas? Maybe they are concerned that their idea will be deemed a “bad idea”? Maybe they are concerned that their idea might be taken forward and if it doesn’t deliver the intended results then it will always be remembered as their failed idea?
Open the door to new ideas
The team needs to know that you want to hear their ideas. Not all ideas will end up being great but one can spark another and we need to innovate to stay on top of our game. We have all seen winners and losers during this recent pandemic. There are businesses that were able to adapt very quickly to the changing times, environmental restrictions and customer needs and others that have not. Opening the doors to new ideas helps to create the kind of environment where teams are continually motivated to find new and better ways to work.
Of course, you need to decide how you are going to get your team to share their ideas so as not to disturb or disrupt their day job - I’m sure that you don’t have the luxury of paying a team to innovate all day long!
Share your business goals
Let the team know what your key measures of success are. For example, a 10 per cent increase in sales year on year, 10 per cent reduction in costs by end of year, or 10 per cent increase in customer satisfaction. Explain that all ideas need to be linked to one (or more) of these metrics.
If you can, also share your goals with monthly performance metrics and insights of what is working and what is not working. I always shared my monthly performance report with not only those who reported to me but those who worked in other departments, so they could understand the challenges and see where successes were possible. Sharing sparks conversation, which inspires new ways to solve problems – you will get some angles and ideas that you may never have thought of.
All this sharing helps colleagues to generate ideas that contribute to your overall success factors, rather than ideas that could take up resources to hit goals that are not on your priority list. Keep the focus on these success metrics and they will not waste effort thinking through ideas that are off-strategy and don’t support your business goals.
Empower your team to carry out some quick and early idea validation
You don’t want to be swamped with ideas, so how about you put in place a way for your team to quickly test out their ideas before they bring them to you? This way you will receive ideas that both hit your business goals and have been through some early validation.
The reason why most new initiatives fail is that we have incorrectly assumed how the people affected feel, think and behave. Whether they are customers or employees, suppliers or partners, someone is being offered some benefit - an answer to their problems, needs and/or desires and someone is probably going to need to do something to get that benefit. For example, perhaps they need to download something or change the way that they order from you.
Early idea validation is something that everyone in your team can do themselves. Some of your team may be able to weave it into their day job, particularly if their idea is centred around customers with whom they interact on a regular basis.
The essence of the idea validation is that they need to gather a small bank of evidence to support these three basic questions:
1) Do the people (be they customers, employees and so on) have the problems, needs or desires that we think they do?
2) Are there already good enough solutions to address those problems, needs and/or desires?
3) Are they prepared to take the necessary action to receive the benefit and for us to realise our goals?
If this evidence does not already exist they can start by asking just five customers (or “affected people”) some well-crafted questions, designed to get open and honest responses. With simple ways to score the answers and targets for the first group of five, your team will be able to find out if their idea is in fact a really good idea that is worth sharing.
Testing ideas is positive, regardless of the outcome
An individual had an idea and they quickly and easily tested out themselves – this is the initiative and action that we applaud. They have gathered a bank of evidence, valuable insight about a group of people and that is definitely going to be worth sharing with the rest of the team, regardless whether their initial idea had legs or not.
Getting close to customers, partners, suppliers, other employees and understanding their motivations, how they think, feel and behave is at the heart of innovation. Only this way we truly understand the problems that need to be solved.
Evidence that is gathered in one test will become evidence for another, so there is the opportunity to assess new ideas even more quickly as the evidence already exists.
Of course, insights from talking with customers will also spark new ideas based on different customer needs. In my 20 years of carrying out customer interviews, I can honestly say that I find out something I did not know from every single one. I have discovered competitors that I didn’t know existed, I have seen a bigger problem than the one I was trying to solve and I have found more important target customer groups.
Don’t hang about!
Get evidence. Make decisions. And most importantly, move forward! To harness positive energy and avoid stagnation, we need to keep moving forward. So the time from a colleague having the idea to having enough evidence to present it as a really good idea (or to drop it) needs to be quite short - perhaps a few weeks tops. Then, from the point that they present it to the point that you make the decision whether to pursue it, again, needs to be short. Ideally not much more than a week. If these timeframes are drawn out then our attention becomes focussed on the “what if” and not on the “what now”.
It’s very difficult to release energy into new ideas if old ideas are still on the table. Time spent mulling over ideas that aren’t going to reach our business goals is time wasted. And winning ideas are pointless if they don’t go anywhere!
Coming up with ideas is easy, but creating an environment where ideas are shared and finding the really good ones to take forward can be more of a challenge. When ideas are judged on evidence and all evidence becomes useful, the fear of failure will disappear and all those great ideas which you never knew about can finally see the light of day! These positive approaches are intended to create happier teams, which we all know creates happier customers. Everyone’s a winner!
I have created a seven-step process which you can read about in my book called The Really Good Idea Test. It will help you turn your idea into a testable hypothesis, identify risks, write a research script, recruit people to interview, carry out the interview, analyse what they say and make decisions to move forward.
Julia Shalet is author of the new book, The Really Good Idea Test, published by Pearson, £16.99.