Seeking a Competitive Advantage

Because we live in a world of constant change, organizations must continually change to meet the demands of the competitive marketplace. There seems to be no end to the stories of companies that failed to change, and eventually went out of business. In today’s business environment continuous invention and innovation are no longer luxuries; they have become the vital key to survival and prosperity. Innovation is one of the few areas where organizations can achieve a significant competitive advantage.

There are many factors that determine an organization’s success at innovation. The goal of innovation is to constantly create new and better products and services that meet or create a need in the marketplace. Innovation is proactive change. Innovation means to think like an entrepreneur – always looking for new opportunities. It is no longer enough to have the best product or service today; you must also consistently innovate for tomorrow.

Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. The larger and more successful an organization becomes, the more difficult it is to change and reinvent its products and services. In fact, the more successful an organization becomes at execution, the harder it becomes to innovate and change.

Leaders must learn to challenge today’s success in order to create tomorrow’s opportunities. Creativity and innovation must become everyone’s responsibility. Most new ideas and innovations are created from the interaction between team members and customers. Customers want solutions to their problems, they want their desires to be met, and their needs fulfilled. These are all potential innovations. Leaders must have every team member actively searching for these opportunities or they will pass right by the organization.

Establishing and maintaining an innovative climate in the workplace requires sensitivity to individual differences when structuring work assignments. Because individual’s needs differ, how you lead people must differ. At the same time, the necessary procedures of your business must be met, and the difference in the way you lead particular individuals must avoid any appearance of preferential treatment.

Give careful consideration to these factors:

  • Structure and freedom. Some team members possess highly structured thinking patterns and want to work “by the book.” They want an explicit procedure to follow in every situation because this helps them feel secure. Give them training that enables them to do their jobs accurately and promptly, but do not burden them with the responsibility for making decisions in unpredictable situations. Other team members, in contrast, prefer to devise their own work plan. They want to feel that you consider their judgment dependable, and that they are free to exercise initiative. Generally, the more freedom people have the more creative and innovative they become. Their productivity and motivation are directly related to the degree of freedom and responsibility you grant them. Be sensitive to individual needs and assign responsibilities accordingly. Keep the goals of your organization firmly in sight, but give people as much freedom as they prove capable of handling. At the same time, require accountability. This approach empowers team members to increase their overall productivity and generate the greatest number of innovative ideas.
  • Conformity and creativity. Encouraging team members to use as much of their creativity as possible – as long as their creativity is focused on productivity – is to your advantage. From their creativity come ideas for improving present products, services, and for implementing future projects. As a leader, your responsibility in encouraging creativity requires careful balance between inviting and directing creativity toward appropriate targets, while ensuring conformity in situations where no deviation can be tolerated. For example, the ethical policies of the organization are so vital to its existence that conformity must be maintained with no “creative” deviations allowed. Safety and quality control regulations must be the letter of the law. But experimentations and fresh ideas in many other areas are essential for continued profitability and competitiveness.

The higher your expectations, the more creativity team members exhibit. High, yet realistic, expectations also increase the dignity and self-worth of those individuals who then find fulfillment in perceiving themselves as dynamic, creative contributors to the team. As the self-worth of team members grows, their motivation and ability to meet challenges improves.