Category Archives: Incremental Innovation

7 Rules for Improving Innovation: #1 Leadership


Innovation starts at the very top levels of your company. Any efforts to improve, whether incrementally or radically, must funnel down from executives to managers to team leaders to employees, and everyone needs to be on the same page.

This calls for regularly scheduled meetings to design and plan out initiatives.  It means that everyone must engage regularly with their employees to communicate the importance of new programs and projects.  Sometimes this means allowing team members to have time and freedom to work on said special projects and perform the proper research. 

Benchmarking is a very important part of this as well.  Goals and metrics must be firmly established, regularly checked, and widely communicated to ensure that everyone is on track.  When numbers are not met, get everyone’s input to find out why and what can be done quickly to improve. 

Finally, it requires that the decision makers who have the authority to approve budget must earmark the dollars to implement new changes and ideas.  There’s nothing worse than getting all the way to the goal line and not being able to convert.  Imagine the frustration of spending months (or years) researching and planning a new launch that gets stopped in its tracks by an unforeseen lack of funding.  Imagine now knowing that the let-down could have been avoided with some simple advance planning and sharper pencil.

Customer-Centric Innovation: Challenge Yourself!

There’s no lack of opportunities for businesses to “create” – creating new products or service offerings, creating new markets to pursue, creating new advertising, and so on.  But “creation” doesn’t always mean you’re innovating.  The difference between creating and true business innovation is that the latter involves taking a serious, hard look at the needs of your customers and doing only that which you know will change the game for them and for your business. 

For this reason, you only want the innovations that are going to be meaningful to your customers and profitable to you - two things that are not typically mutually exclusive.  Creative endeavors are a crucial piece of this model, but if it doesn’t make a measurable impact on some aspect of your business and drive you to get more customers, then why do it? 

Customer-centric innovation begins with examining every point at which you interact with customers (current, repeat, and prospective) and asking yourself this set of questions:  What are the barriers that stand in the way of how this person or business becomes our customer, obtains our product, etc.?   What can I do to eliminate that barrier and make it easier for them?  How can I do this in such a way as to remain true to my business’ core values, and stay focused on our critical essentials?  How can I do this with the fewest complications (a.k.a. keep it simple)?  How can I do it better than any of my competitors?   When you can answer all of these questions, you’re firing on all 8 innovation cylinders. 

These things go MUCH deeper than “let’s create our next big product because our customer is asking for it.”  Take the time to look at things like: pricing, delivery methods, your suppliers, materials costs, systems in use, inventorization, materials, your investors, your accounting, your sales methods, your marketing team, and everything else you can possibly think of.   If it seems like too much work, just remember: this is what your competitors are already doing.   You’ll quickly find ways to improve quality in all of these areas, and these improvements will aggregate to impact how your customer becomes your customer, and how you keep them as your customer.

Assign people in all of these areas to create “challenges” for their teams on how to improve something in their department.  These can be as simple as “How can we improve our purchasing practices?”, “Has anyone seen a better system that we can use for billing?” or “How can we save money on shipping?”,  “How can we fill orders faster”, and so on.  

Allow their teams to answer the challenges with ideas and suggestions.  Take time to encourage these folks to vote and comment on ideas received.  Make sure to follow through implementing the best ones, and reward folks for sharing them.  After all, the best solutions and improvements will invariably come from the people who deal with the issues you’re trying to solve on a daily basis.

The key is asking the right group with the right expertise to answer your challenge.  The possibilities for “challenges” are limitless, just like the areas for improvement in a company.

Some of the innovations that you find and implement using challenges may impact your customers or improve their experience in ways they will never even know about, and that’s just fine!  Let them just be thrilled to be your customer and wonder how you do what you do so well!

Flagpole is an inexpensive, easy-to-deploy application built around the above-described challenge model.  You can use it to query your employees, partners, even customers out in the marketplace to find focused, impactful ideas and innovations to implement.

Nice Article on 3M and Innovating in a Tough Economy

CEO of 3M George Buckley understands that you need to keep innovating and investing in product development, especially through tough economic times.  While many companies are slashing R&D budgets to save costs, 3M and others are looking at ways to improve products incrementally; a very smart approach.  It’s not always about creating the next big breakthrough product.

Here’s a great, quick interview with Buckley that appeared in the WSJ recently:

An affordable and easy way to do this is with Flagpole Software:

Build Your Own Innovation Factory

When it comes to keeping innnovation and creativity moving in your organization, we can all learn a thing or two from history’s greatest inventor, Thomas Edison.  While everyday corporate innovation usually doesn’t entail coming up with new inventions on a regular basis, one can easily draw a few parallels between the prolific inventor’s company and your own business.

Arguably, Edison’s greatest innovation was perhaps not any single invention, but his own laboratory in Menlo Park, NJ.  Edison set up an “Innovation Factory” of sorts , which demonstrated that anyone could produce a promising stream of innovations and ideas, if organized and executed correctly.

First he built a process for keeping himself and his workers on track.  He created goals that stated that his shop would produce “a minor innvention every 10 days and a major breakthrough every 6 months.” 

You could do the same with your business innovations by setting realistic goals for the number and quality of ideas you want to find .  Then, implement a tool to help you deliver on it:  Issue challenges to your “workers” to drive a constant, but focused flow of ideas through your “factory.”

Another hallmark of Edison’s constant innovation cycle was the fact that he reused (and sometimes re-purposed) good ideas and proven smaller inventions over and over.  His phonograph used wiring that he created for telegraphs and an electric motor design that his shop had used in several previous inventions.  Good old Thomas wasn’t afraid to blend a few small, already tested elements to create a larger breakthrough concept. 

Your organization could do exactly the same thing.  By “warehousing” and regularly revisiting “not-ready-for-primetime” ideas that you capture along the way, you’ll begin to identify opportunities for combining two, or maybe several, ideas into larger projects like a breakthrough product or huge time saver.

You don’t need to build a laboratory in New Jersey, though.  You can create your very own “Innovation Factory” right now with Flagpole (  Just set it up, publish your own business challenges, and let your innovators get busy solving problems, submitting ideas, and collaborating right away.  

Soon you’ll be meeting your goals of constant innovation.  Thomas would be so proud!