Ask SCORE: Finding that spark of creativity to boost business

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDSeptember 24, 2012 

Question: I own a business. It's doing OK. I realize that innovation is an important part of business success. But the problem is, I'm not very creative. Are there some ways for me to learn this skill, or am I doomed to be a dud forever?

Answer: Yes, you can and should learn ways to add innovation to your business skill set. Being quick to adapt is very important. As I've said before about business: it used to be the big that eat the small. Now it's the fast (the innovators) that eat the slow. Let's talk about this.

Sounds like you need a jump start. First off, let's step back and look at what creativity is. Some call it a left-brain, right-brain deal. This theory says that the dominantly left-brained people include the concrete thinkers like accountants and engineers. On the other side are the right-brainers, where the artists, musicians and inventors hang out. Sounds like you're definitely not in this latter group.

And this isn't just psychobabble. It's backed by an established history of neurological and psychological research.

It's time to look in the mirror, and see if you're comfortable becoming an innovator, a synthesizer, an originator. Here's one test - do you frequently think of new ideas for your business? Can you visualize a new and different future not just in three years, but also in three months? These innovations don't have to be brand new products or services - it's an incremental process. They may be a slightly new way of doing business, for example revamping your website; a new market you might pursue, like older or younger customers; or a new approach to your internal operations, like adopting "Lean" business practices.

One huge advantage of small businesses is that they're nimble. When you're fast on your feet, you can out-compete larger firms which are not as adaptable. For example, if you see a changing local market opportunity, you can "pivot" much faster than a large company. You don't have several layers of management to run the idea up the flagpole. Plus, a fast pivot means that you can get out just as quickly if the idea doesn't work, with minimal losses.

To start, let's review the concepts of "creativity" and "innovation" and note how they are related - but not the same.

Creativity is a process where you or others come up with original ideas that could improve your business. These ideas may be ones you think about for a while, or they may drop out of the sky. We'll look at some techniques for doing this in a moment. Think of creativity as being the "front end" for innovation. It's necessary, but it's not sufficient.

Innovation is the end product when creativity is coupled with execution. Try this exercise. First, rate your company's ability to generate lots of viable creative ideas, on a scale from 1 to 10. Then rate your ability to implement or execute those ideas into reality, on the same scale. Multiply the first number for creativity by the second number for execution. Here's how this might help you decide where to focus your efforts.

Say you rate your creativity pretty low, at 2, and your execution pretty high, at 7. Multiplying 2 and 7 comes to 14 out of a possible 100. But if you beef up your creativity from 2 to 5, your total (multiplying 5 and 7) jumps to 35, which is a major improvement. Of course using the same formula would tell the creative guy next door, who can't execute, that he needs to buy you coffee and have a chat.

There's a new business concept about this. It's called being a "re-inventor." This suggests that your business must continuously evolve new products, services, and markets. This might be scary for a low-innovation company or owner. But, there's always a backstop. Keep in mind that just like many other business skills, creativity can be rented. Ad agencies, marketing firms, freelance consultants, and others will be happy to give you their ideas, of course for a fee.

There are loads of ways to improve your creativity skills. Google key words like these: brainstorming; mind mapping; using suggestion box; lateral thinking puzzles; business improv class Bellingham; business creativity exercises.

And last, if this topic interests you, check out innovationtools.com which is billed as "The world's largest website focused on business innovation, creativity and brainstorming." You'll find some ways to get the creative juices flowing.


ABOUT SCORE

To learn more about managing cash flow, and other small business matters, contact SCORE, "Counselors to America's Small Business." SCORE is a nonprofit nationwide organization with more than 13,000 volunteer business counselors who provide free, confidential business counseling and low-cost training workshops to small business owners. Call the local SCORE chapter at 360-685-4259 to schedule an appointment. For details about the organization,visit SCORE.org.

Ask SCORE is prepared for The Bellingham Herald by Bob Dahms, a business counselor with the Bellingham chapter of SCORE. Submit questions for this column to newsroom@bellinghamherald.com.

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