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Small Business Innovation: Make Room for Big Ideas

Small Business Innovation: Make Room for Big Ideas

By: Daniel Patrick Forrester, author of Consider: Harnessing the Power of Reflective Thinking In Your Organization

Economic recessions are relentless for the inevitable escalation in the unemployment rate that results from falling demand. After such a restructuring, the issue of employee performance emerges as those workers left with jobs must take on an even greater workload.

Today’s knowledge workers toil within a perpetual daily immersion of data, with no set downtime, as home and work become blended space. What is lost in all of this? Time allowed for deep thinking where new ideas are forged and carried forward -- the very ideas that drive business innovation. 

Is your small company positioned to motivate employees to generate innovation as the economy recovers?

Worker Productivity Versus Worker Innovation
Basex Corporation reports that individual time for reflection is on life support; just 5% of our days are spent thinking and reflecting.

Given that ratio, how can we expect to formulate new and innovative ideas and industries when thinking is devalued and compressed under mounds of information-overload? Most workers are in a constant fog of action and immediacy. 

The industrial age narrative of “wringing” work from people seems a tired idea that has had a countervailing impact on business in this recovery.

In essence, companies have pushed workers to act on the immediate without giving them the mental space to think about the next big idea. With no permission to take a step back or unplug, it’s unlikely that creativity can emerge and innovation can take root.

General David Petraeus once told me that the first job of a leader is to “get the big ideas right.” He added, “That takes time, as ideas don’t just fall from trees.” Leaders should ask: how many big ideas have been hatched and nurtured within my organization while squeezing more and more from worker productivity?

Encourage Employees to Think Big
Imagine that you are a top employee with a new business venture that could be a moneymaker for your company. However, you have never built a business before and don’t quite know where to start. Your idea has merit, but the immediacy of day-to-day needs precludes you from ever getting the time away to prove the concept.

Companies like Best Buy and Whirlpool Corporation allow employees to explore new ideas relevant to both the employee and the company inside ‘safe spaces’ where action is balanced with reflection. Thus immediacy can be held at bay even while working deliberately on the next big idea.

Nancy Tennant leads the innovation agenda at Whirlpool Corporation. She helped to define an impressive framework for embedding innovation in the organization. The result means that ideas rapidly surface and then proceed within this hundred-year old company.

Thousands of similar innovation teams have emerged over the last decade. Safe space is given to employees where they “question orthodoxy” with questions like, “What are we doing for men as a customer segment?”

The next time you are in a Lowes or Home Depot, check out their Gladiator GarageWorks product line targeted at men. This profitable offering was born only through affording internal teams months of time to think and reflect, while simultaneously holding people accountable for their idea’s business outcomes. 

Let Employees Think Before They Act
On the West Coast, innovator and entrepreneur John Wolpert is running a start up created by Best Buy’s “UpStart” program and spun out of the company in 2009. The venture runs the innovative taxi location service called Cabulous and aims to be the "online map for everything that moves." The company was the brainchild of three Best Buy employees who were given time and resources through the program to prove out their business idea over ten intensive weeks living together.

Wolpert explained to me, “I think startups and established companies in tough economic times have one thing in common...they become like endurance runs. You don't get time. You don't get resources. You push yourself and keep moving.”

Wolpert is also a realist who believes that allocating time for reflection, especially when the company is not “under the gun,” often sustains it through the times when action is the imperative. If employees miss opportunities to think deeply, the best you can hope for is what Wolpert terms, “micro-second reflection moments.”

Immediacy has its merits, but it’s a distant second to innovative problems-solving  where dialogue is allowed to flourish and the totally unexpected can emerge.

You can’t “wring” big ideas out of tired and busy minds that are never permitted to enter a different mental context beyond the day-to-day survival model. As the recovery gains some steam, now is time to adjust the mental model of problem solving. It begins with the simple premise that the best ideas and insights can only surface when people are given time to think before they act. 

© 2011 Daniel Patrick Forrester, author of Consider: Harnessing the Power of Reflective Thinking In Your Organization 

Author Bio
Daniel Patrick Forrester
, author of Consider: Harnessing the Power of Reflective Thinking In Your Organization, is a management consultant with over fifteen years experience leading complex strategy and technology evolution engagements for senior executives from Fortune 100 and 500 companies, and federal government organizations. Current and past clients include: Verizon, Sallie-Mae, Sprint, Dow Chemical, FMC Corporation, The Department of Homeland Security, The Library of Congress, The Congressional Research Service, and the United States Marine Corps.   Forrester is frequently in demand as a public speaker at organizations such as The Brookings Institution and the top-ranked Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago.  He is currently a Director and Executive within Sapient Government Services, a subsidiary of Sapient Corporation.

For more information please visit DanielForrester.com and follow the author on Twitter