Why “What If?” is the Most Important Question in Business

Today’s name of the game is constant innovation, but how do you get your team in the mindset to move forward?

Every business owner or manager knows that continually coming up with those bright and shiny ideas to take your business to the next level can be a slippery pursuit. So how do you make the quest for innovation an actual “thing” rather than “a happy accident”?

A good place to start is by creating an innovation culture with a team encouraged and inspired to think “What if?” and empowered with the processes and tools to explore that question.

Many overworked business owners might ask: “Why rock the boat and invest in a hard-to-pin-down concept? Why take staff away from their tasks and ask them to dream?”

The reason is pretty compelling: survival. We’ve all seen companies that have established their niche, gotten really comfortable and eventually gone out of business. Remember Blockbuster?  Who ever dreamed we wouldn’t have a video store on the corner? Netflix certainly did.

Getting Started
Start by committing to the creation of an innovation strategy. Just like any other strategy, an innovation strategy serves to solidify your commitment to innovation and sets up criteria by which you can evaluate new ideas so you’re not losing track of the good ones or mistakenly chasing the ones that are exciting but not right for your company.

Here are some tips for crafting your strategy:

Define what innovation means to your organization. Is it inventing new technologies? Is it successfully commercializing new products? Is it improving ways to communicate with customers? Define it and document it.

• Aim high. Your innovation strategy should be inspiring (more so than, say, your IT strategy). Go out on a limb and imagine — give your staff something to strive for. Don’t immediately shut down ideas because you perceive roadblocks. There’s plenty of room for shaping and measuring ideas later.

• Take it seriously. Innovation is one of the more enjoyable parts of business, but it shouldn’t be taken lightly — this is what you are using to kick your competition in the butt, to outpace them in the market space you share. Make it part of your business environment, not a once-a-year meeting.

• Put aside preconceptions. The worst phrase in business is “we’ve always done it this way.” Kick that one out the door and look to your staff, your vendors, your clients and your competition for ways to be more innovative.

• Evaluate often. Including frequent evaluation points will allow you to review what success looks like and the tactics that are going to get you there.

• Incorporate flexibility. Letting your strategy gather dust isn’t particularly innovative. Things change — so your innovation strategy should be a living document.

Getting in the Innovative Mindset
If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll keep getting what you’ve always got. So the saying goes — and it’s true. Here are some fun but important steps you can take to create the right space for continuous innovation to occur.

• Turn your office into an innovation lab. You might be thinking, “This is crazy; I couldn’t possibly redesign my office.” But why not? Start by creating group spaces where your staff can talk and share what they are working on. Pick up some whiteboard paint and go crazy in your group space or in the boardroom — provide a space where ideas can become visual and come alive.

No idea how to go about it? Why not work with an interior designer who is experienced in designing commercial spaces and understands how humans interact with their environment to reach their highest capabilities? Then fill your office with examples of innovation: art, books, products or technologies that push boundaries.

• Try some new tools. Pick up Lego Serious Play, an innovative process designed to enhance innovation and business performance with hands-on, minds-on learning that can lead to deeper, more meaningful understanding of the world and its possibilities. This may seem like a kids’ toy, but it truly is designed to get you thinking differently.

• Practice “Six Thinking Hats.” Designed by Edward de Bono, this is a way to spark collaborative thinking with the use of different-coloured hats. The idea is to disrupt normal thought processes, cause a change in the conversations and thus get a group moving in
a different direction.

Lastly, Roger von Oech’s Creative Whack Pack or the new Innovative Whack Pack: 60 Creativity Strategies to Provoke and Inspire Your Thinking can help teams see problems in fresh ways. These card-based packs by von Oech, an author and toymaker, are easy and can be used in groups or individually — bring them out whenever you’re hitting a wall. They even come as iPhone apps.    

• Give design thinking a go. Whether you’re a tech company developing a new product or a museum crafting a future exhibition, design thinking taps into something creative industries have harnessed for years to break down problems. Popularized by the international design firm IDEO (think of Apple’s first mouse, Steelcase’s iconic Leap chair, Fender’s stereo acoustic amp), design thinking provides a proven, repeatable problem-solving methodology that is used to to solve complex problems through human-centred innovation.   

• Go exploring. Immerse yourself and your staff in new ideas. Attend conferences, talk with peers, connect with business associates — find out what others are doing. And study innovation: pick a couple of the big companies like Tesla or Amazon that have truly embraced and prospered from innovation and learn from them. It’s all scalable.

Start Now; Shape the Future
Embracing innovation keeps you on your toes, and keeps your business engaged, in charge and relevant. Some people expect innovation to happen instantly just because they decide it should, but it is actually a slow incremental path. It takes leadership, patience and the will of the entire organization, but in the end it will pay off.