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Three (Cheap) Ways Every Company Can Innovate By The End Of This Quarter

Innovation isn’t some mysterious, expensive process that unfolds on a five-year plan.

Three (Cheap) Ways Every Company Can Innovate By The End Of This Quarter
[Photo: Jacob Ammentorp Lund/iStock]

“Innovation” is a big, abstract target that means different things to different people and companies. It often feels like the name you give after the fact to what you’ve already accomplished, rather than something you do, through concrete actions, every day.

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What’s more, “innovating” is arguably getting harder. You can’t just build an app and market the hell out of it–software doesn’t always cut it anymore. The bar has steadily risen, and clearing it in many cases now requires cutting-edge hardware, machine learning, and other expensive, high-tech gambits. Add to that mix a highly specialized domain focus, ready-to-use content, and expert help–all features companies increasingly have to turn to in order to distinguish themselves in the market.

Then again, technological innovation isn’t the only variety there is. When you get down to brass tacks, “innovating” is really just about shaking things up so your team can look at challenges with fresh eyes, and increase the speed at which they’re tackling them. In other words, it’s neither as vague nor as out-of-reach as it may sound.

Here are three concrete steps you can take toward innovating on even a shoestring budget, all before the first quarter of the year is out–and how you’ll know they’re working.

1. Find Something To Gigify

There are literally thousands of freelancers right at your fingertips, ready and willing to help with your projects. Plan on spending anywhere from $1,000 to $20,000 (depending on your company’s size and the project’s intent) to get help with the most innovative content, product, or service you’ve got in the pipeline–or with any add-ons or market research you’ll need in order to get those to market.

This can be an effective, efficient way to harness the resources needed to complete specific tasks–ideally your most experimental ones–rather than having to hire full-time employees to work on them. So have a look at your main business objectives for this quarter. They may seem prohibitively expensive to start with, but give yourself a $3,000 quarterly budget, for instance. Do any of those goals begin to look more manageable if you were to contract help on knocking down just this obstacle or that?

How you’ll know it’s working by next quarter:

  • You have more detailed insights about your customers, competition, and partners than you did at the start of this quarter–even if by just a few data points.
  • Your target list, sales pipeline, and pricing model has gotten a refresh. Now at least one of those things is more refined (based on better intel) than where you left it after coming back from the holidays.
  • You’ve added content that you didn’t think you had the resources to produce before–like a blog to educate prospective clients or job candidates.

2. Cut Your Travel Budget In Half

Surely you’ve heard before that innovation thrives under constraints, right? Try hacking your travel budget in half and then figuring out how to make do.

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Maybe you can use technology to improve customer engagement instead of traveling to your clients’ locations so frequently. Your videoconferencing platform is crappy, you say? Take the money you’re saving on your sales team’s airfare and invest it in a collaborative platform that lets you communicate more smoothly with your clients.

How you’ll know it’s working by next quarter:

  • You’ve cobbled together a process or invested in a platform to help your customers self-assess their needs and priorities. You’re a little more hands off, and they’re none the worse for it.
  • You and your teams aren’t mired in emails as much. You’ve invested in a way to centrally manage all your project communication through a product like Trello, Slack, or HipChat integrations, or even just a savvy system of your own devising using Google Docs and Sheets.
  • You’re giving a facelift to the process you use to track customer issues and feedback. At a minimum, there’s now a person or small team in charge of testing ways to streamline that.

3. Tap The Brain Power Of The Universities In Your Backyard

Having trouble wringing fresh ideas out of your current team? Look outside of it. Instead of hiring a bunch of researchers or signing an expensive contract with a consulting firm, look for ways to link up with researchers and interns from the academic institutions in your area.

Some companies make this approach a key part of the way the do business; one startup head told Fast Company last year that a major reason he founded his tech company in Iowa was because of the wealth of underleveraged talent in the regional university system. An approach like this not only lets you source innovation outside your own walls, but it gives you the biggest bang for your buck as you do.

That’s true whether you’re just looking for a team of seasonal interns to help gather ideas for a single quarterly project, or joining forces with experienced researchers to conduct a study that will inform your next product offering. People outside your field can provide different (and valuable) perspectives that you wouldn’t otherwise have access to–and many of them are already right under your nose, in the academic sector.

How you’ll know it’s working by next quarter:

  • You’ve drawn up a strategy to recruit, train, and mobilize a research team (again, interns still count!), and you’ve reached out to area universities to see what they can offer.
  • You can already point to at least two new products in development or new markets you’re eyeing based on ideas your new allies in academia have generated.
  • Since not all research is necessarily useful research, you’ve outlined a method to evaluate the merit of these insights and development efforts and their ROI.

Innovation isn’t a mysterious process, and it isn’t the sole preserve of deep-pocketed corporations. It’s all about breaking things down into manageable goals that let you move faster, think differently, and experiment. That doesn’t have to be costly, or unfold over a five-year plan. Start this quarter and see for yourself.

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Serial entrepreneur Faisal Hoque is the founder of Shadoka, which enables entrepreneurship, growth, and social impact. He is the author of Everything Connects: How to Transform and Lead in the Age of Creativity, Innovation, and Sustainability (McGraw-Hill) and other books. Use the Everything Connects leadership app for free.

Copyright (c) 2017 by Faisal Hoque. All rights reserved.

About the author

Founder of SHADOKA and other companies. Newest book "Survive to Thrive – 27 Practices of Resilient Entrepreneurs, Innovators, And Leaders" (Motivational Press, 2015).

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