The rapid pace of technological development means companies need to innovate to stay ahead. Tapping into outside business influences is essential to this process and can have a direct impact on company performance.
The day-to-day thinking of business leaders is often mired in a relentless series of small tasks, making it difficult to find the time to develop ideas. How can you make sure you’re constantly learning and embed innovation in your business?
To help, Be the Business has pulled together a number of tactics you can use to ensure outside business influences improve your company’s performance – including working with startups, peer groups and coaching, and how to implement learning routines.
Working with startups
The UK’s startup scene has experienced rapid growth over the last decade as the support network improves and investment increases. Working with startups can be a great catalyst for innovation, providing access to talent, technology and attitude.
Established businesses are developing symbiotic relationships with these new companies through investment and acquisitions, running incubators, and mentoring.
Charlie Bradshaw, founder and CEO of product design and manufacturer Matrix APA, has made around 30 investments in startups, mentoring their leaders and providing access to the company’s network. This has provided an opportunity to bring ideas and technology into the company. For example, one startup developed technology to track products through the manufacturing process, providing data that’s increased efficiency.
“They work with some of Matrix’s factories and customers,” explained Bradshaw. “We gave them complete autonomy and access to our network. Their development process took a year, it would have taken two to three without us. Likewise, we learnt masses.”
Speaking at startup events or attending as a delegate provides another opportunity. Entrepreneurs are keen to learn from larger companies, whether it’s a C-level leader or someone with a specific skill set, and these relationships can help you learn and find talent.
Lean Startup provides startups with a framework for development, aiming to get products into customers’ hands faster. “Using the Lean Startup approach, companies can create order not chaos by providing tools to test a vision continuously,” said founder Eric Ries.
Larger companies are using the methodology to increase speed at which they innovate. This can mean setting up a new division in a near-autonomous fashion. The approach reduces the time to get products to market and increases the opportunity to leverage outside business influences.
Suppliers are great outside business influences
Consultancies and suppliers can help businesses discover new opportunities. Wedding stationery company Dotty about Paper developed a software system to automatically process proofs that have been approved by customers into the printing queue, a task that had accounted for 60 per cent of certain job roles. The inspiration for the system came from their web development company.
“There are lots of things you can do manually when its 100 orders a week, but as it becomes a 1,000 and 2,000 you look at it with different eyes,” said Dotty about Paper director Lisa Forde. “We’re minimising the tasks that can be automated so we can put more staff time into the customer and team-focused roles.”
Forde added she worked hard to find a supplier that had similar goals and would provide them with a consistent set of contacts.
The benefits of systematic learning
Leadership roles require processing a huge amount of information. Regular company reports need to be analysed, alongside sector-specific benchmarking. It can be difficult to find time to read or consume material that doesn’t seem essential to the job role.
It’s helpful to build routines to ensure you’re learning from outside business influences. Try to find time where it’s impossible or uncomfortable to work productively, a commute or business travel is a great place to start, and use it to consume content.
Listening can be easier than reading. Podcasts and audiobooks help, and articles can even be listened to via your phone’s text to speech function in apps like Pocket.
Matrix APA’s Bradshaw has switched social media off and relies on The Economist and The Harvard Business Review for news. He also uses app Blinkist, which takes the key lessons from non-fiction books and creates summaries that can be read or listened to in 15 minutes.
Forde’s business, meanwhile, is very trend based. The Dotty about Paper boss uses social media and regular contact with other businesses in the wedding industry, through trade fairs and friendly conversations, to keep on top of what’s happening.
It’s becoming increasingly common for CEOs to join networks to share ideas too. Peer organisations expose leaders to new ways of tackling the challenges they face. Bradshaw’s a member of global network YPO and UK-based The Supper Club, for example. Forde has a fortnightly session with a business coach to assess different strategies.
“My coach has been good at pushing me out of my comfort zone. It makes me accountable for what I say I’m going to do. They play devil’s advocate,” revealed Forde.
She believes the outside influence helped her make the decision to change the company’s name after 13 years as The Card Gallery. The business makes most of its sales online, creating fear that it would lose its all important search ranking. However, the move meant it could broaden the product range and has been successful.
Courses are an example of ad hoc learning opportunities. Bradshaw went to Silicon Valley-based Singularity University for a week-long course on the impact of disruptive technology.
“I knew my business model was going to be heavily disrupted in the next decade. Startups were going to challenge what we’re doing and I didn’t know where to start,” he said.
Discussions around this course led Matrix to introduce “cobots” to its factories in China. These user-operated units are essentially electronic arms with an iPad screen on, helping workers with manual tasks like picking bottles off a production line.
“I always imagined the factories that used robots were massive car companies that had billions to spend. In these factories there are tonnes of really smart people in menial jobs. Businesses can grow faster because they can make better use of the human capital,” said Bradshaw.
CEO role in finding new ideas
Matrix’s Bradshaw is adamant the commitment to learning and spending less time in the office has caused the company’s rapid growth. This shift began in 2009, when the business was turning over £5m. He started hiring senior staff to take over operational aspects of his job role.
“The less time I’ve spent in the office, the faster my business has grown. It’s as simple as that. There was a part of my life where I was so in the operational driving seat I never got time to do the other stuff. I’m the owner, not the operator,” said Bradshaw.
He believes the approach has been crucial to Matrix closing in on its target of £50m turnover next year, which will be a ten-fold increase in the decade since he made the decision.