Innovation in the SME and Entrepreneurial Context

Innovation is as important for small business as for large ones, but most of the books and other writings available focus on the big firms. In his new book The Innovation Formula, Langdon Morris provides insights for the small business leader or entrepreneur about how to be fantastically successful at innovation even with very limited time and capital to invest.

There are lots of very good books about innovation, but most of them are written for big enterprises, global corporations and multinationals, and they focus on how to help them deal with big global trends and problems. There are also lots of great books by and about start-ups, especially in the how-to genre. But to date there haven’t been very many books about innovation and strategy for small businesses, which is why we wrote this one, and we certainly hope you find it useful!

We all know that no business can remain stagnant and expect to survive for very long in today’s competitive economy. Technologies, market structures and customer preferences are rapidly changing as new trends emerge, and leaders know that every business must respond by adapting and changing, by innovating.

But innovation is difficult to achieve, as much art as would-be science, a domain that is inherently filled with a double dose of uncertainty. For the external forces are themselves uncertain – things are changing, for sure, but not in ways that we can readily predict; hence, we must prepare for the unknown future by readying a wide range of future options, not knowing until even the last minute what will be required to do, or stop doing, as change unfolds and as the future arrives day by day. The second domain of uncertainty is inherent in the nature of the innovation process, where we’re doing something that we’ve not done before in order to create something that has not existed before.

Slightly tongue in cheek, Einstein is reported to have said, “It’s called ‘research’ because we don’t know what we’re doing,” and this definitely captures the spirit of the innovation endeavor.

And as much as business leaders dislike uncertainty, and they generally loathe it, they also know that when it comes to innovation, they’re stuck with it.

So this is the critical background against which you’re now embarking on the innovation journey. As your guides in this book, our mission is to show you how to live with these inescapable uncertainties, how to reduce the associated risks, and even how to profit from them.

Small business reality

It’s a lot easier for the CEOs of Toyota or General Motors or Tesla to allocate the people, the time, and the capital to explore and create innovatively than it is for the owners or managers of Jane’s Garage or José’s Sandwich Shop. The big firms usually have massive R&D budgets that fund hundreds or even thousands of people to peer into the future, to do the science and technology work to develop new products and services, and to think through the critical details around innovation and strategy. Their staff and consultants have MBAs and economics degrees that trained them to think about the future and come up with lots of new ideas. But who do José or Jane have to support their innovation and strategy initiatives?

José and Jane also do most of the strategic thinking between managing the major accounts, hiring and firing the staff, counting the inventory, opening in the morning, closing at night, and a hundred other tasks that are essential to keeping the business going.

They probably just have … José and Jane themselves. And maybe a few key employees, advisors, or friends. So in addition to changing the oil and changing the tires and making the sandwiches, and probably even washing the dishes now and then, José and Jane also do most of the strategic thinking between managing the major accounts, hiring and firing the staff, counting the inventory, opening in the morning, closing at night, and a hundred other tasks that are essential to keeping the business going.

So when do they do the strategic planning? When do they find time to innovate, to develop new products and services, do the clever R&D, create smart new strategic partnerships, and all of the deep thinking that’s needed to assure that their businesses remain viable in these changing times? When, in other words, do they innovate?

A lot of Josés and Janes don’t strategize at all, and they don’t innovate much either, because they just don’t have time, or they aren’t interested. But of course this contributes to the high mortality rate that businesses like theirs suffer from.

Most of them know they should innovate, or innovate more, and it often grieves them that they don’t find enough time to build their future because they’re so deeply focused on surviving today, on the urgent tasks that are, alas, not so important.

If you are like José or Jane, a small business owner or leader, this book is written to help you innovate. The way we go about it is by guiding you through a straightforward and yet entirely proven process of creating the innovations that will, hopefully, help your business adapt to the changing world and the changing market, to survive, and even to become significantly more successful.

Leverage the power of questions and maps

You know intimately about the big challenges your business faces, challenges including competition, new technology, and perhaps even globalization is affecting you as well. And since you already know about these issues, the approach we take here is not to go into a lot of detail about the forces of change, but instead to engage you to think differently, and productively, about how to respond to them, and hopefully even inspire you to take action.

Our way of doing this begins with a simple but yet long-proven way of proceeding, namely by asking questions. We approach it this way because it’s been the case that since the very beginnings of history people have found that the right questions, posed at the right time, can unlock deep and compelling insights. And we believe that this is every bit as relevant today to help you lead your business as it was during the times of Socrates and Plato, Confucius and Lao Tsu, Adam Smith and Karl Marx. Questions do in fact drive useful thinking and learning for adults and business leaders as much as they do children and college students.

Consequently, we’ll ask you to consider a lot of questions throughout this book, and to think deeply about them.

To make this easier we also offer structured worksheets and templates which may facilitate your own thinking process. These are really just questions in a bit more structured format, which may enable you to lead a process of dialog with your colleagues and partners who may have their own awarenesses, insights, and discoveries to develop and share.

In addition to these questions, the other key tool we rely on is maps. We love them, whether they’re the GPS-enabled on your phone or the tools built into your car, or perhaps one pinned to the wall, we all rely on maps to make complex situations and realities understandable, clear, and actionable. Maps simplify the complex and enable us to access huge amounts of information at a glance, helping to orient and organize ourselves in space and time. The maps we use here, of course, are not geographic ones, but conceptual ones intended to help you recognize the critical relationships that will enable you navigate your way not from here to your next business meeting, but from today to tomorrow and beyond.

For these are maps that describe competition, change and the future, maps of innovation and strategy that are intended to help you understand the significant forces that are shaping business today, and to harness the ones that are already shaping tomorrow.

By Langdon Morris

About the author:


Since 2001, Langdon Morris has led the innovation consulting practice of InnovationLabs LLC, where he is a senior partner and co-founder. He is also a partner of FutureLab Consulting. He is recognized as one the world’s leading thinkers and consultants on innovation, and his original and ground-breaking work has been adopted by corporations and universities on every continent to help them improve their innovation processes and the results they achieve. His recent works Agile Innovation, The Innovation Master Plan and Permanent Innovation are recognized as three of the leading innovation books of the last 5 years.

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