Business innovations sometimes come from a brilliant insight pulled from the depths of your brain. But more often, they are the product of observing the world around you. The same can be said of artwork. The people who create inspiring paintings, plays and other pieces almost always incorporate observations from the physical, social, even business world into their work.
The many connections between innovation in the business and artistic worlds inspired the Arts and Business Alliance of Eugene (ABAE) to dedicate one of its Creative Academy seminars to “The Artistic Approach to Innovation.” Speakers Brian McGinnis, managing director of Oregon Sewing; Marsha Knee, a design and entrepreneur; and Mitra Chester, ABAE board member and creator of the ENVIA Fashion line at St. Vincent de Paul of Lane County, talked about their own experience with innovation and how their ability to think creatively helped them build successful companies.
Chester began by defining innovation as “a novel way of doing things better or differently, either by quantum leaps or incrementally.” Then the group moved on to a discussion about when and why innovation is necessary. Innovation can be incredibly important for company survival because it can help a business make more money by cutting costs or coming up with viable new products.
“Cost cutting no longer makes it in America,” said Knee. “You can cut and cut until you’re anorexic and your business dies. You have to feed it with innovation.”
Sometimes innovation is necessary because the business environment is changing. As new competitors spring up, consumer tastes change, opportunities arise and new world markets become available, businesses need to be able to jump in.
And sometimes innovation seems necessary because a company wants to make better use of its existing resources. Chester’s ENVIA Fashion line takes people’s discarded garments and gives them a second life. That means her parent company is throwing away fewer items, which saves it money and allows it to do a better job of meeting its mission.
Innovation sometimes happens simply because of people’s innate need to make processes better or more efficient. McGinnis jokingly chalked this up to laziness. “I want to get things done in the shortest amount of time with the fewest steps possible to be able to move on to the next thing as quickly as possible.”
Step one in the innovation process: generating ideas
The first step in the innovation process is generating ideas, Knee said. “You get your ideas, write them down, figure out which ones you want to address – or which ones you need to address – and mobilize them, either by yourself or with a team.”
Those ideas can come from anywhere – including your mind, something you saw or read, employees or customers. The latter can be a very valuable source of information to feed innovation. “Talk to your customers,” Knee said. “That becomes your research. Ask them, ‘What do you like? What do you not like? What are you seeing other people doing that you like?'”
Looking at what your competition is doing is a good idea, as is looking at what businesses in your space aren’t doing. “In the photography world I like to stay ahead of the pack,” said a professional photographer. “Part of that is looking around at my colleagues and fellow artists and going, ‘What are people not doing? What are people literally not doing in the art world that could push the art world further? And how can I make that a part of my process?'”
Many artists surround themselves with chaos, controlled or otherwise, because they find inspiration in it. The lesson for business leaders is to surround yourself with things you enjoy. That can be making art, spending time outdoors or anything that gives your mind the space to ponder new ideas. “Einstein came up with the theory of relatively while playing the piano,” McGinnis remarked.
Audience members identified time as one of the biggest hurdles to being innovative within their companies. “We always have to be moving faster and keeping up with trends,” said a small business owner. “A challenge for me is that that’s grounded in research. For me, finding the time to keep up with that is challenging.”
“That has to be part of your process,” Chester responded. “You might have to force yourself to find resources, either time or a person, to do that step because doing that research on your competition and making sure you’re keeping up is a huge part of the process.” If you really can’t invest time in research, find a university intern, stellar employee or trusted colleague who can.
“Up until relatively recently, I’ve thought about strategy as a giant monolith,” said a participant from a software company. “To change it felt like a really big deal. But what if part of innovation is thinking about it in smaller steps, or testing the low hanging fruit and figuring out if the smallest piece of this grand idea has resonated with my customers? And if it does, to build on that piece and dedicate a little more energy to that story? I just created room to make some mistakes and experiment.” That mental shift has allowed her to pursue small innovations within her business.
Step two in the innovation process: evaluation
The next step is to screen your ideas to see which ones hold water and which ones don’t. “The first part, where you’re listing out all these ideas, is where you want to engage the creative process,” Chester said. “Then you have to counterbalance that with the research. You’re switching hats and switching from the artistic mindset to the reality and business mindset.”
How do you evaluate which innovations to pursue? Talking to colleagues can be a good first step. “It took me a while to figure out I needed more brains that just mine to figure everything out,” McGinnis said. “I had a group of five like-minded friends who were all entrepreneurs, and once a week we’d all sit down and talk about problems and ideas we were having in our respective businesses. That way we’d get different perspective from people and were able to work out things a lot quicker.”
Gathering feedback from your existing customers is also a good idea. “Social media has been really good for that,” Chester said. “I’ll come up with all these different prototypes and we’ll put them on social media and say, ‘Which do you like best?'”
That’s one of the many reasons Chester suggests building up strong social media pages, email newsletters and other communication channels. When you’re ready to seek feedback on innovating new ideas, you’ll already have an audience that’s engaged and willing to help.
During the evaluation phase, make sure you’re really listening to other people and not just moving ahead with an idea because you think it’s a good one. The group describes this as being a sponge instead of a plow.
“A sponge is absorbing information through all these channels – their environment, the culture, their experiences, by listening to customers and talking to employees,” Chester said. “Then they can make a better decision on how to innovate that will probably be more successful and efficient. Versus a plow where you’re just plowing forward with your ideas.
“That’s what artists do,” Chester added. “They absorb chaos and beauty. Their art is inspired by all those things around them. It’s not just, ‘Here’s a solution, move forward.'”
Steps three and four: experimentation and assigning market value
“The next step in the innovation process is experimentation,” said Knee. “You experiment with those ideas to see which ones are viable to bring to life.” Along with that, it’s important to determine whether your products or services can be profitably delivered at a cost the market will bear. Because of that, these steps sometimes happen in conjunction with each other.
For McGinnis, experimenting meant selling his first product – bags made out of upcycled sails – at Eugene’s Saturday Market. He let consumers pick their own fabric and thread colors, buckles and other add-ons so he could understand what there was demand for. It also gave him a good understanding of what people were willing to pay in his marketplace.
For Chester, experimenting means making prototypes of garments to evaluate whether they can be manufactured in a cost-effective manner. If not, she scraps the idea or looks to streamline her process so things can be made affordably.
Service businesses can’t create prototypes in the same way makers can, McGinnis noted. But following steps similar to these will still yield good results.
“You still need to figure out what it is the customer wants before you go and execute it,” he said. “The customer needs to feel you’re on the same page as them.” Consider doing things like demos and giveaways in advance of launching a full-fledged service business.
Step five in the innovation process: checking in
This step is important at all stages, but it becomes critical when you’re ready to move forward with manufacturing an innovative new product or making major changes within your company.
“Checking in is about making sure your way is clear,” said Chester. “Do you still have a passion after the other steps, or are you burned out and not interested anymore? Is the expense of everything much higher than you anticipated, and do you have a way to account for that?”
The other part of checking in is setting a realistic timeline for implementation. “Sometimes it takes a long time to get things off the ground,” said Knee. “Timing is everything, especially in today’s global marketplace, so you shouldn’t let a project go on indefinitely. You need to set goals and timelines.”
“If it’s a big project, break it into smaller chunks,” said McGinnis. That can make the project seem more manageable.
Step six: implementation
When all these steps have been completed, it’s time to bring your product or service to market. But now you may have a totally different problem: getting distributors or consumers to take a risk on something they’ve never seen before. How can you get them to make the same leap you have?
One option is to use data, Knee said. In the 1990s she wanted to market clothing, shoes and other products with a skull and crossbones design to surfers. Retailers were terrified of departing from the palm tree and beach-themed apparel that had been a mainstay for many years. Knee was able to show them sales data from a smaller business that had been successfully selling the products for years. That helped the larger businesses feel confident enough to move forward.
In addition, Knee gave them a guarantee. “It was a change-out because we did have other products that were in their stores,” she said. “So if the new products didn’t work they could trade them out so there was no loss.”
Our workshop presenters did a great job of showing that innovation is all around us and waiting to be discovered. Sometimes it just takes an artistic lens to see it. When creativity combines with data, the human experience complements quantitative research, and risk taking combines with practicality, great things can happen, in both the artistic and business worlds.