No word in the startup lexicon is more overused and misunderstood than “innovation.” It gets thrown around so often that entrepreneurs tend to forget that innovation isn’t inherent to startups -- it’s the result of hard work.
Innovation blossoms from a continual dedication to solving problems and delivering greater value and even a company that starts out with a unique offering or business model can’t maintain innovation without focus, intent and alignment.
Consider Amazon: The ecommerce giant has preserved its startup spirit for more than 20 years because its executive team understands the need to constantly experiment and improve the customer experience with offerings such as Amazon Prime, Kindle Unlimited and Echo. Amazon empowers employees to find solutions on their own, then work quickly to bring those to fruition.
Startups disrupting the status quo all work in different ways, but there are four things truly innovative companies don’t do:
1. Overthink and prolong taking action.
Discussing potential solutions to a problem often feels safer than taking action but innovating in a theoretical capacity robs your startup of valuable lessons and prevents you from exploring all possible outcomes. Don’t let your team become paralyzed by “what ifs.”
I’m teaching my daughters how to surf, and I give them the same advice I gave my team to keep them from overthinking: Once you understand the basic principle, you just have to dive in and try it. Yes, you’re going to fall and get bruised, but you can’t truly understand the dynamic environment around you until you stand up and feel the wave under your feet.
2. Create rigid structures.
Cultures where team members feel compelled to ask for the boss’s approval are built on hierarchies that crush experimentation. In the startup world, it’s much better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.
Facebook was built on the motto “move fast and break things.” It celebrated failure -- even bugs that crashed the site -- because mistakes were a sign that people were moving quickly and challenging the status quo.
Giving your team carte blanche to take risks will ultimately benefit your startup, but you must support this ideology with your actions. I’m usually the first person to break the most expensive piece of new technology in the office, but I believe it helps create an environment where my team feels safe to experiment.
3. Shy away from conflict.
Conflict is the result of passionate dedication to an idea and an essential component of innovative cultures. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos detests “social cohesion” and actively encourages leaders to “have backbone; disagree and commit.”
Conflict is also a natural byproduct of working in an environment with diverse perspectives. I spent 10 years as a creative director blending technology and visual design, and I found that the greatest victories came from the seamless integration of teams with different goals. The trick is building a culture where every idea is respected and valued to nurture healthy disagreements and minimize destructive conflict.
4. Get comfortable in their routines.
Running a company requires finding the most efficient way to deliver the most value. At my company, we rely on kaizen, the practice of continuous improvement, to streamline every facet of our organization. Great Western Bank used this principle to reduce the steps it takes to open a checking account from 34 to 24, and Herman Miller used it to achieve a 500 percent increase in productivity.
You can’t get so wrapped up in the needs of your clients that you stop innovating within your own company. Encourage your team to look inward and evaluate how existing processes can be improved, and give them time outside their daily routine to explore solutions.
“Innovate or die” has long been the entrepreneur’s mantra but holding an annual hackathon and the occasional design sprint doesn’t make your startup innovative.
Innovation isn’t an event; it must be woven into the fabric of your organization to truly take hold. Empower your team to take action, make mistakes, engage in healthy debate and refuse to settle for “good enough,” and innovation will be a natural conclusion.