Promoting innovation in small business

Working together

In today’s fast-paced, high-tech, consumer-driven world, the cry to innovate can sometimes seem like a call to invent new widgets and crank them out at an ever-accelerating pace. However, according to experts who specialize in helping Southwest Washington companies grow and thrive, business leaders would do well to take a new – maybe even innovative – approach to innovating. “Innovation” is not just a buzz word, they say. It’s also a philosophical approach to change that allows companies from all industries to adapt to a changing marketplace.

“There’s organizational innovation and also process innovation,” said Bonnie Moore, vice president of business growth and innovation at the Columbia River Economic Development Council. “One is more internally-focused, the other is about innovating externally.”

External innovations, like new features on your favorite smartphone, are easy for customers to see, but internal innovation is just as key to business growth and success.

Look inside the company

Moore has worked with the full spectrum of Clark County businesses – from decades-old, family-owned manufacturers to high-tech startups. More often than not, Moore said, innovation is at least as much about what happens inside a company as it is about the products that it sells.

“Columbia Machine is a great example of a manufacturer that has innovated, from an organizational point of view,” Moore explained.

Vancouver-based Columbia Machine makes equipment that other businesses use to stack products onto pallets and also sells machines for making concrete. When the housing market crashed, so did demand for concrete-related equipment.

“They had a product that was largely decimated by the Great Recession, yet they figured out how to use their engineering expertise and apply it to different machinery and equipment to diversify,” Moore said.

Columbia Machine pursued international markets so that it would not be so closely tied to U.S. housing. Additionally, it implemented lean manufacturing processes to cut costs and boost efficiency.

“Today they are selling into over 100 countries,” noted Moore.

Listen outside the box

“But none of us is an island unto ourselves,” commented Newt Rumble, who as vice president and CPA at Peterson & Associates has worked with dozens of companies over his career. “The process of innovative thinking in a company and innovative development in a company is one best resolved through shared communication.”

Business leaders should cultivate communication by seeking out different points of view – and not just from within the company, Rumble advised. Often, executives treat a board of directors as a legal annoyance, but the right board can lead to new ideas, he said. A strong board might include an accountant, an attorney, a banker, an insurance agent, a local psychologist or pastor, a public official and one or more business leaders from other sectors. That diversity of experience will encourage business leaders to think outside the box and consider different – often innovative – approaches to their work.

Just as skilled outsiders can help executives see things in new light, front-line employees can be a source of innovation as well, Rumble and Moore noted.

Companies that have adopted lean manufacturing – built on boosting efficiency and eliminating waste – can learn first-hand the value of empowering low-level workers to suggest improvements, Moore said.

“Innovation comes from the bottom,” she added.

A workplace that encourages healthy collaboration and conversation is a workplace more open to innovation, Rumble explained.

“To get new ideas you have to be receptive to new ideas. You can’t be receptive to new ideas if you’re not in an environment that creates them,” he said.

Take measured risks

“Companies that choose to be daring are the ones that are transformative,” said Marc Neidlinger, a principal at marketing and design firm Blue Blazes LLC. “The ones that are afraid to take risks – especially financially – are the ones that are forgettable.”

Neidlinger said that he encourages business leaders to think about how they’ll market their products or services even early in development. Rather than look at how a product is similar to the competition, he said companies should focus on how they stand out and differentiate themselves.

“The first question they should ask is: How are we uniquely valuable and why should people care?”

Rumble agrees that a willingness to try new things is key to innovation, but he also cautions his clients to stay grounded as they consider business opportunities. Key questions: “How do you know it’s a good idea? How are you measuring it? How are you monetizing it?”

Five ways to promote innovation:

Bonnie Moore, vice president of business growth and innovation at the Columbia River Economic Development Council, offers these tips:

1. Be client-focused. Understand your clients’ needs and challenges and deliver solutions.
2. Perfect your niche product or service. Don’t try to be everything to everyone.
3. Diversify into multiple markets. Look for both domestic and international opportunities.
4. Develop your team. Focus less on becoming a big company, more on being a nimble and responsive company. The right talent can provide solutions to clients’ needs.
5. Be transparent with your team. You’d be surprised at how many innovative ideas come up from the team.

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Jodie Gilmore’s journalistic background includes more than 15 years of writing for the Vancouver Business Journal as well as other publications such as Northwest Women’s Journal, North Bank Magazine, American Builders Quarterly and The New American. A Master’s in Technical & Professional Writing and 20+ years in the trenches as a technical writer and online help developer round out her writing background. When not writing, she enjoys gardening and working on her small farm in the Cascade foothills.