A year or two into my entrepreneurial journey, the company I co-founded, was going broke. My co-founder and I were really frustrated: The economy had tanked, we had put in all of our own money, and we weren’t moving very fast. In fact, we were going backward.
Possibly more frustrating was the fact that we weren’t getting a lot of help from our team. We’d return to the office from two days on a delivery truck to find that all the lights were on, the air-conditioning was keeping the place at a crisp 65 degrees, and the bills were killing us.
No one was taking ownership to correct these little oversights. And why would they? Our employees didn’t have a sense of how we were struggling. We weren’t broadcasting that because we didn’t want to instill fear.
We decided the only way to keep the business open was to level with our team. This was a complete change in our thought process and an about-face from what business school and previous jobs had taught us about how to manage. This was about connection instead of respectful distance.
So, we opened up the kimono. We shared our financial situation with the entire team. We showed them what was coming in, what was going out, and what everyone was being paid. We explained how we were making 30-40 shipping mistakes a week and paying for it. (It was a bad business model, but it was our only option at the time.) We were honest.
Then we asked for their help. We told the team, if we can make this business work and save money through expense cuts of any kind, we’ll share the rewards with you. We came up with an incentive pay scheme to share the net profit.
This was one of the biggest innovations we ever made in the way we managed. It transformed the business and ultimately gave us the ability to pivot. Quickly, people started taking ownership. People stepped up.
I never again heard, “That’s not in my job description” or “That’s not my responsibility.” The trash started getting emptied. The kitchen started getting cleaned. We started organizing more potlucks and stopped eating out. It fostered team spirit, solidarity, and human connection. The home-base support allowed us to do the deliveries and customer meetings out of the office. We were selling and going to trade shows, and the company was still being nurtured at home, which allowed us to move the business forward.
That is what transformed us and allowed us to survive. We didn’t come from cultures of transparency and open communication, but if we hadn’t tried the complete opposite of everything we thought we knew, we never would’ve made it. A couple of years after that paradigm shift, we landed on the Inc. 500 list of fastest-growing private companies in the U.S.
Cultivating an Innovation Mindset
Wild Creations would never have succeeded without each team member stepping up. I really saw the value of individual contributions to the overall innovation of the business. For my co-founder and me, times were desperate, but innovation is a critical part of the evolution of any company whether in good times or bad.
No matter what the position, every team member has a significant role to play in the innovation of a company, and that means embracing change as part of your job. Innovation, in the abstract, is considered highly valuable, but it should also be attainable. Participating in innovation will motivate you and enable you to play a bigger part in your company’s — and your own — success. Here’s how to become an innovator within your company, even if you’re an entry-level employee.
1. Ask the right questions to identify a problem.
Investigate what problems you might be able to solve in your organization. Assume that maybe your leaders aren’t being entirely transparent either, so start asking questions about how to boost efficiency or cut costs. Knowing exactly what type of change might be valuable will tell you where to direct your creative energies. Once you’ve identified a problem, large or small, take the initiative in brainstorming a variety of solutions.
Geoff Tuff, principal of innovation at Deloitte Digital, suggests asking, “What might be another possible way to tackle this problem?” He continues, “Having a clear problem triggers a clear solution. When you can’t even remember what you’re trying to solve, you need to go back to the drawing board. If you can come up with multiple ways to solve the problem, you know you’ve got clarity.”
2. Break goals into a small series of targets.
Innovative thinking doesn’t happen by accident, and neither does success. Once you have worked with your supervisors to establish overarching goals, define some parameters. For instance, if you are given an innovation directive to slash your production costs, be sure to clarify the conditions: “by this percentage without losing these key elements.”
Then you can map the route to reach your key goals. Often, one goal can be turned into several mini-goals. By making step-by-step plans, you can whittle away at anything from a suboptimal process to a toxic workplace culture. When you find an opportunity to contribute and make your mark, it’ll boost your confidence, creative problem-solving, and productivity.
3. Remember that failure is acceptable.
Whether you hope to start your own company with your new ideas or simply want to be a highly valuable asset within your current organization, it’s OK to conduct experiments that fail. Keep in mind that there is immeasurable value in the process itself.
Laurence Lehmann Ortega, affiliate professor of strategy and business policy at HEC Paris Executive Education, believes that failure is not merely acceptable but is actually beneficial to the process of innovation. Ortega says, “Rather than abandon a failed initiative, if you’re able to understand and learn from what went wrong then you’ll be able to improve your offer, product, or service and try again and in turn make yourself more creative and thus innovative.”
My experience has taught me that by throwing some of what I learned in school and in previous jobs out the window, it opens the door for every employee to contribute new ideas. It keeps a company healthy when everyone participates in innovation. Just don’t expect exciting new ideas to come from people who don’t feel connected in any way to you or your company’s mission. Communication goes a long way toward turning the ship around.
Rhett Power is Best-Selling Author, Executive Coach, Columnist at Forbes, Inc. & Success. Rhett Power co-founded Wild Creations in 2007 and quickly built the startup toy company into the 2010 Fastest Growing Business in South Carolina. Wild Creations was named a Blue Ribbon Top 75 US Company by the US Chamber of Commerce and named as one of Inc. Magazine’s 500 Fastest Growing US Companies two years in a row. He and his team have won over 40 national awards for their innovative toys. He served in the US Peace Corps and is a graduate of the University of South Carolina. He now has a rapidly growing coaching and consulting practice based in Washington DC.