Step By Step: How to innovate incrementally


Entrepreneurs have to innovate to survive and thrive. However, innovation often doesn’t come easily. Let’s face it. It’s the rare business that strikes it rich with some Step by step: How to innovate incrementallymind-blowing high-tech invention or cool new wonder-product.

In fact, that’s not the kind of innovation that has the most impact in the small business world, says Michael Selci, Senior Vice President, Finance and Consulting, at the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC). Much more important is something called incremental innovation—small, manageable improvements in your business.

They might not be as sexy as a fancy new product that makes a big splash in the news or revolutionizes an industry, but they’re the bread and butter of most highly innovative businesses, Selci says. And given the limited R&D resources at most small companies, incremental innovation probably offers the best payoff for entrepreneurs over the long-term.



Discover simple tips to make your business more innovative.


“If you don’t innovate, you risk falling behind,” Selci says. “But radical innovation isn’t the answer for most businesses. Small incremental steps are what they need to work on to help their business grow.”

Rob Read of Bison Fire Protection agrees. His company, which supplies fire protection products and services, is growing at an impressive clip, with sales shooting up 20% each year since 2001. Bison has ranked as one of Canada’s top 500 fastest-growing companies two years in a row.

What is Bison’s secret? Constant improvement, Read says. “I think if you’re not innovating, changing or trying things, you’re dying. If you think business is done the same way as 10 or even five years ago, you’re wrong,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be the clouds parting and light beaming down. And we’re talking doable things─little changes on a regular basis.”

Read recently brought in an outside consultant to audit his business processes and look for efficiencies. He had noticed some of his employees were overworked, so he wanted to find ways to make their lives easier. “If you’re running a marathon every day, you’ll lose a lot of your people,” he says. The expert recommended some simple streamlining measures, such as processing paperwork more efficiently and improving scheduling and inventory management. It sounds like simple stuff, but these innovations made a huge difference.

“That marathon turned into a walk in the park. People are less stressed. We’re getting better production with the same people and lower costs,” Read says. “The staff have repeatedly come to me and said, ‘Thank you.’”

Another recent innovation was to start having weekly meetings to brief sales people and project managers on the status of various jobs. That’s resulted in better productivity and customer service, Read says.

One more innovation: hiring a supervisor for each of Bison’s three divisions. Thanks to these managers, employees are now getting better support and training. Bison has also started investing more in its people by offering weekly staff training sessions.

And Read’s not done. Upcoming plans include a customer survey and another outside audit in a year or two. “As we grow,” he says, “I’m continually looking at ways to innovate.”

3 Tips for small-step innovation

Many entrepreneurs shy away from innovation. “They view it as something complex or revolutionary that only the big guys can take on. Or they’re so busy trying to manage day-to-day operations and customers that they say they don’t have time for it and are fine as is,” BDC’s Michael Selci says.

However, innovation can be tackled in small steps that are easy to manage. Here are some tips:

  1. Constantly review your processes and products to see what you can improve.  Seek advice from an industry expert or an external consultant with expertise in functional areas such as human resources, lean management or information and communication technology. Talk with suppliers and listen to customers to get new ideas.
  2. Form partnerships with universities and colleges to cultivate ideas and potential employees.
  3. Shorten your idea-to-market cycle. Quickly see whether there is market interest in your idea. Test a new product inexpensively by promoting it on eBay or YouTube. Gauge market reaction, and innovate based on the feedback.