With our eyes on the prize, we may miss opportunities that are right in front of us

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Innovation. As a word, it is grossly overused, joining my 2017 “tired of” list that includes “hand-crafted,” “impactful,” and “transformative.” As a function, it is misunderstood. As a business reality, it is elusive.

So what does it mean to be an innovative company, and what does it take to get there?

We could start by getting on the same page about what innovation means. In 2016, Inc. magazine asked acknowledged innovation experts for a definition. They were all different: from having an idea to executing an idea to thinking differently. And everything in between, including “definitions aren’t important.”

I beg to disagree. If we can’t define it, we can’t “be” it. Or at least we won’t know if we “are” it.

Here in South Carolina, you hear a lot about innovation. A search on Indeed.com for “innovative” jobs in the state produces more than 2,700 listings. They range from collections representatives to marketing interns. If the job description doesn’t include the word, the company description surely does.

Unfortunately, the message about how innovative we are doesn’t seem to be getting through to organizations that analyze that kind of thing.

The 2017 annual report on innovation by Wallet Hub (goo.gl/tK6LGt) lists us as 41st in the nation. That keeps us out of the 10 worst only because the analysis included the District of Columbia (No. 1). Our “human capital” rank was 36th. That factors in share of STEM professionals, science and engineering graduates, projected STEM job demand by 2020, Advanced Placement exam participation, eighth-grade math and science performance, and scientific knowledge output.

Being 36th probably helped our overall ranking after a pretty weak showing on innovation environment, where we ranked 47th. Factors included the share of tech companies, research and development spending per capita, R&D compared with state gross domestic product, patents per capita, startup activity, tax climate, average internet speed and access, venture capital funding, small business funding by the Small Business Administration, and — my fave — drone-friendly laws.

All in all, it’s not a good report card.

But the thing about bad report cards is that they give us something to work toward. As most successful people will tell you: You don’t learn from success.

And now I’m talking to you, small-business owner. Innovation is not just a big-business game. Any company of any size can embrace innovation and grow with it if you keep your expectations manageable.

For our purposes, we’ll define innovation as advancing and improving the way something is done. That’s probably a definition that aligns with all the companies on Indeed who say they are innovative. Not because they are constantly inventing something, but because they do something better than or differently from their competitors. Because they evolve constantly, don’t rest on their successes, and are — and here’s a biggie — willing to risk a mistake on the way to a success.

Innovation does not have to be fueled by technology, although it often is. But technology is often necessary to implement an innovation. Some of these tools can be embarrassingly basic and you may already have them. But what it cannot do without is curiosity. Curiosity is different from other skills in that everyone can have it and exercise it.

Curiosity is also something that can bubble up instead of dripping down. It may often be seen in the annoying questions of junior staffers that bring out your inner W.C. Fields (“Get away from me kid, you bother me.”). Yet, the intuitive and possibly innovative junior staffer may have the best visualization into your business. The staffer has no idea how you’ve always done things or why. They are a completely impartial observer — at least for a while. Many companies push curiosity back into its box, preferring to hear ideas from more established, experienced members of the team. But by the time that curious junior staffer becomes more established, they may very well have learned to keep his outside-the-box suggestions to themselves.

Admittedly, curiosity alone can be annoying. I mean, why IS the sky blue? But when you couple curiosity with creativity, you get a simmering soup of ideas. Many will be unworkable; many will be unaffordable; and, because we so often think of innovation in grandiose terms, many may seem mundane. Creativity puts form to function. The creative sees a hammer and wonders whether he can use it for something other than driving a nail. You might find that your business has technology that can be deployed for something you didn’t originally consider.

But curiosity and creativity can take you only so far. Some ideas will require capital. And that’s often where innovation dies. We want new ideas, we ask staff to come up with them, we may even publicly support them. But how often do we actually fund them? Creative staffers may tire of coming up with great ideas that never get implemented and find more fertile ground elsewhere.

Often, though, the capital required is human. Can you task a staffer to this project, bring in a programmer, or get a contractor to help design or implement an idea? A major bar to innovation is often looking at the most expensive options rather than exploring some of the capabilities and capacity you already have.

Innovation is not the exclusive province of the Apples, BMWs, and Elon Musks of the world. Maybe your innovation efforts won’t change the world, disrupt markets, or help drag South Carolina out of the basement in rankings, but it can make your company quicker, smarter, and more competitive.

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Tell us about your innovation projects: how you identify and develop them, and the impact they’ve had on your business. Brag a little, and help others at the same time. Reach me at laura@portfoliosc.com, and follow me on twitter @portfoliosc and Facebook.

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