Gaining a Competitive Advantage

Gaining a Competitive Advantage

In order to succeed in today’s competitive global marketplace, small business owners need to foster an environment that promotes creativity and innovation in the workplace. Following are four steps that any small business owner can take to get the creative juices flowing, no matter the industry.

Create Space

First and foremost, the human brain needs time and space to put ideas together in novel ways. When we are overscheduled or overwhelmed with the pressure of too much to do, we tend to operate on auto pilot, doing the same things the same way day after day. According to Franklin Lakes, N.J.-based Janice Marturano, author of Finding the Space to Lead and founder and executive director of the Institute for Mindful Leadership, the number-one thing that gets in the way of innovation is space. “We all have a to-do list that is miles long, a day that is packed with meetings,” says Marturano. “We need to cultivate the ability to have open space to allow the mind to be creative.” Productivity may actually increase as team members feel less overwhelmed and overscheduled.

Marturano suggests a few simple steps to create more space in the day. “It’s as simple as learning to train the mind to attend to the feeling of feet walking down the hallway from meeting to meeting,” she says, “or noticing while sitting at a meeting while the body is there but mind isn’t, and then using some physical sensation (breath, feeling of feet on the ground) to bring your mind back to the present moment.” Otherwise, the default mode is to “spend most of our mental energy ruminating or remembering the past, planning or worrying about the future,” says Marturano, which “zaps both your physical and mental energy.”

Promote Failure

Another important element is to create a corporate culture that tolerates mistakes. Behind every major success story, chances are that you will find many tales of false starts and even abject failures. “Failure is part of the creative process,” says Robert Bradford, CEO of Center for Simplified Strategic Planning, based in Waterford, Vt. “In business, you want to figure out how to fail cheaply and quickly and move on to next thing.” You want to feel secure trying new things and not be afraid of negative consequences. “The human brain is trained – going back 20,000 years – to always look for threat or what they are afraid might happen,” adds Bradford. “That’s not what creativity is about.”

Reward the Effort

Instead, be sure to reinforce a creative and collaborative culture by rewarding team members for taking risks and for cultivating an open mind. “It’s a really good idea to recognize when people contribute ideas and make them feel part of the team,” says Bradford, “even if it’s only a symbolic gesture. Every time that a reward is received, it stimulates dopamine.” Scientists have found that dopamine in the brain functions as a neurotransmitter and is directly related to motivation and behavior. Dopamine makes you feel good so that as a result, you are inclined to do more of that behavior or activity.

Look Outside the Box

Last but not least, business owners need to look outside of their industry for inspiration. “Chances are that if a business is only doing what their competitors are doing, they won’t innovate,” says Bradford. “You need to get ideas from outsiders that will stimulate conditions and connections that don’t normally occur. Really creative ideas are outside of the normal connection space.”

Indeed, in a recent study conducted by Harvard Business School, researchers recruited hundreds of roofers, carpenters and inline skaters to contribute ideas on increasing workers’ use of safety gear. A panel of experts evaluated their suggested solutions based on novelty and usefulness. The finding: “Each group was significantly better at thinking of novel solutions for the other fields than for its own,” and the farther the distance from their own field, the greater the novelty of the idea.

If you are serious about getting ahead of your competition, create a collaborative culture of creativity in the workplace by creating space, allowing failure, giving rewards and looking beyond your own industry for ideas.

SooJi Min is a freelance writer and nonprofit executive based in Ann Arbor, MI. She has written on small business topics for Crain’s, Imagination Publishing and The University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

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