Four ways your business can innovate

Innovation and creativity doesn't just have to be the domain of big businesses - plenty of small businesses are coming up with smart and interesting products, services or processes that change the way they do business. With the economy in a slump and consumers becoming pickier than ever about what they buy, SMEs have and continue to develop and execute new ideas that are getting them noticed.

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But if you aren't sure where to start or lack the finances to do so, here are four ways your business can innovate without spending too much.

Develop a creative workplace culture

Innovation starts with your employees, so the logical first step to take is to transform how your staff thinks and works. According to Innovation & Business Skills Australia, no single person is likely to put all the pieces together to create new ideas and bring them to fruition - it is a team effort that requires the encouragement of others, sharing of ideas, flexibility and collaboration.

So how can you make this work in reality? Encourage employees to creatively think of ways to improve a product or process, and perhaps throw in an incentive or make it a competition to get the brain juices flowing.

Alternatively, have weekly brainstorming meetings in which you nurture an 'open table' (or 'open door') policy so others can speak freely of their innovative ideas without fear of criticism.

The second thing to ensure is your employees' wellbeing. Questioning convention is the key to creativity, and this begins with questioning the way people are expected to work, says Tony Schwartz of the Harvard Business Review. Mr Schwartz says that businesses should ask their employees what they need to perform at their best, what success looks like, and hold them accountable to specific metrics. By making your employees that much happier, you are allowing them to start thinking innovatively.

Get customer feedback

Now that you've talked to your employees, it's time to do the same for your customers, and more so given that they are directly generating sales for your business. You can do this through an online survey attached to your website, for example, or for an even simpler and more effective method, just ask them directly the next time you're in a meeting.

Because your clients have used your products or services, they are best placed to tell you what works and what doesn't, and may even have a few suggestions for improvement.

Take advantage of government grants

Government grants or assistance packages are a great way to become innovative, particularly if you don't have enough resources to commercialise your innovation, or conduct research and development. Government grants typically focus on expanding your business, R&D and exporting. There are three main sources of grants in Australia: AusIndustry, GrantsLINK and's Grants & Assistance Finder.

AusIndustry, which delivers many business programs worth about $2 billion each year, currently has seven programs  open for applications, one of which is specifically for small businesses. AusIndustry offers small business advisory services as well as funding to textile, clothing and footwear small businesses to improve their enterprise culture.

GrantsLINK, on the other hand, is specific to rural and regional businesses across various industries; while Grants & Assistance Finder provides an overview of federal, state and territory grant programs.

Sign up to D&B's free Government Grants Newsletter, which brings you the best and the latest in grants and assistance each quarter.

Streamline your processes

The Small Business Development Corporation of WA suggests streamlining and improving business processes to increase efficiency, productivity and profitability. While this may incur an initial cost, your business will reap the long-term benefits of this innovation, no matter how minor it may seem. Examples include using one payroll or financial accounting software instead of having separate systems to manage different tasks.

The key is to identify any area that is currently inefficient or unwieldy, then taking the necessary steps to simplify it. For instance, if each member of your sales team is using his/her own method of recording prospects and sales, consider developing a consistent system whereby they are required to log each step of the sales cycle. This may be something as simple as coming up with a form with specific fields they must fill out.

Once small businesses stop thinking about innovation as simply a buzzword used by big businesses, then they will be able to improve existing ideas and procedures.

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