Amid all of the trappings of running a business, how do I find time to innovate? What if I'm just not the creative type?
These are questions you'll find many business owners asking themselves in this new era of business where terms like agile, design thinking and creativity reign.
There's a perception that innovation and creativity are things that certain people are good at and others aren't. However, this belief is limiting — personally and professionally.
Innovation, like many things, can be achieved in a multitude of different ways, and in stages. It's also not an innate skill, a notion that was debunked by an article in the Harvard Business Review:
"Studies of identical twins separated at birth indicate that our ability to think creatively comes one-third from genetics; but two-thirds of the innovation skill set comes through learning — first understanding a given skill, then practicing it, experimenting, and ultimately gaining confidence in one's capacity to create."
So how can firm leaders foster a culture of innovation in their organizations so that they are able to effectively grow and scale business? Here are five simple steps you can introduce to your organization:
1. Slow down before you speed up. Innovation is often conflated with speed, but innovating too fast without attention to your business strategy and overarching industry trends can be damaging as well. There is a lot to be excited about right now, and many firms are riding the wave of an up market. But it's important not to overextend your team or your firm, so take care to distinguish an opportunity from a distraction.
Sometimes you'll find slowing down and evaluating the business and industry from a bird's-eye view yields more clear, creative ideas and gives you time to do your due diligence when it comes to making new decisions — something I like to call being a fast follower.
(More: Investing to sustain innovation)
2. Buy down your risk. Assess what safety nets need to be in place so your team can safely explore new processes and offerings. By putting these in place early on, you will be able to offset costly risks. This is all in the spirit of creativity, but you want to make smart innovations, not just innovate for the sake of innovating.
3. Think small before thinking big. Taking small, calculated risks is the key to pushing ahead without overextending yourself or your team. Agile, iterative processes can help make manageable work of big ideas.
As a bonus, introducing innovation in small waves can help make new ideas palatable to stakeholders (or clients) who are used to the old way of doing things. Starting small can also bring internal stakeholders out of their shells. People who might not want to voice their big idea early on can get comfortable with the new culture of innovation.
4. Look to your team. Innovation, especially at the firm level, doesn't rest with any one person, even if they're the Steve Jobs of the financial world. Your internal stakeholders are experienced with day-to-day client challenges and company processes and are often the best source of new ideas on how to innovate your offering. Remind teams from time to time that innovation is highly valued — even rewarded — and that company leaders are listening.
5. Spend some time daydreaming. There will always be plenty to do and it's easy to get bogged down in the daily grind. I recommend structuring your future weeks, months and even years in a "Next" model.
Outline your "Next Now" (the next three to six months), your "Next Next" (six to 18 months out) and your "Next Next Next" (two-plus years in the future) — delineating between what you must conquer today versus what lies on the horizon and, ultimately, where you want to go with your firm. Too many people stop after "Next Now" either because of capacity constraints or lack of a defined vision.
The future of financial advice will be nimbler and more unpredictable than ever before. While it can seem daunting as a business owner, take the meaningful steps now to intentionally create a culture of innovation. It's what our profession — and your clients — will demand.