Small business owners face unique pressures and enjoy the special satisfaction that comes with building and sustaining something that is theirs. As the daughter of a small business owner I grew up experiencing the perils and rewards nightly at the dinner table.

Now, there is no exemption from responding to market demands for adapting products and services, customer experience, operating processes, technology, workplace and workforce. Innovation is core to how businesses must respond.

What does it take to innovate and achieve results, not get caught up in false notions of what innovation is, and balance new demands with what we used to think of as a “normal” day? How can a business owner de-risk the uncertainty and unpredictability that comes with innovation?

Innovation to create business results comes from commitment, focus, alignment to the overall strategy for the business, and leadership.  Band-aid attempts will squander resources and derail success.

Following are universally relevant recommendations of what it takes, adapted from the award-winning book, The Change Maker’s Playbook: How to Seek, Seed and Scale Innovation in Any Company.

  1. Set aside preconceived notions of what “innovation” means.

Innovation is not “cool stuff.” It’s not the latest Silicon Valley invention winning headlines. In fact, it does not need to be about technology at all.

Innovation is the creation of viable new offerings that meet the real needs of the people a business wants to serve.

“New” does not need to mean new to the world – it can mean new to a business, a market, an industry sector or a customer segment. Innovation can be incremental – an improvement to today’s offering, or disruptive – a game-changer, or a breakthrough that may not change the world, but is a meaningful step beyond today’s offering.

  1. Be willing, committed and actively engaged, in head and heart.

If the business owner is not on board, in the language of Brooklyn, my hometown, “fuggedaboutit.” Innovation means change. It means remaking, replacing or enhancing the way things have happened. It requires decisions about moving resources to new areas. It can upset the status quo that made the business successful.

Innovation introduces unknowns in a world already overloaded with uncertainty.

The walk and talk of the business owner must be consistent, optimistic, clear and supportive for stakeholders to buy in.

  1. Connect the innovation agenda to the business’ strategy and goals.

What is the business’ challenge where innovation can play a role? Initiatives should directly connect to concrete priorities. Is the strategy dependent upon new customer acquisition? Relationship deepening? Improved access to digital channels?

  1. Be crystal clear on who your customers are. Know the priority customer segments.

Innovation efforts should start small, earning more resources as tests are conducted and milestones achieved. Focus starts with choosing segment priorities – start with one customer segment.

Develop a few hypotheses for experiments that can generate learning and validate, disprove, or refine ideas. When tests do not achieve hoped-for results, use the outcomes to construct the next set of tests. Failure equals learning. Keep tests small and aim for “good enough.”

A series of accumulated small wins can trigger the “hockey stick” effect we all love –  the point where the team begins to believe more deeply in the role of innovation to address some of this year’s pressures.

  1. Listen to customers and set priorities based on their needs.

I have never met a CEO, founder or business owner who did not claim their business was customer-focused, but many have a long way to go.  That’s because most people have plenty of upside to be better active listeners.

Innovation success starts with active listening to understand customers’ deepest needs – the features they want, the benefits they expect, and the values that stimulate connection. This means understanding rational and emotional needs.

Being able to connect emotionally through the customer experience at every point can be a differentiator for many small businesses.  It is part of the DNA of the small business sector; innovation is essential because businesses must now deliver under previously unimaginable circumstances, and much more digitally than in the past.

  1. Shift mindsets.

A great place to start is to take a guided customer journey map “tour.” Focusing on how customers actually identify, sort through, select, purchase and use the business’ offering will be an eye-opener, and can surface a short list of priorities that can become small wins, build innovation execution muscle, and grow confidence.

Stay away from “big bang” approaches and also from a patchwork of fragmented answers that will eat through resources, create frustration, and not yield meaningful, lasting results.  Apply the discipline, focus, and other attributes small business owners possess that enabled them to create their companies. A step towards pursuing innovation efforts may feel like a big leap but small business owners have great assets with which to begin. Tap into what got the business to this point and be open to new approaches to finding what’s next.

Amy Radin is an advisor, director, and author of The Change Maker’s Playbook: How to Seek, Seed and Scale Innovation in Any Company, Winner of the Book Excellence Best Business Award 2020. Amy has driven development and scaling of transformative products and services, anticipating and adapting to market forces so as to shape businesses’ future success. Now as a keynote speaker, and as an advisor and board member Amy brings her expertise to help teams innovate.

Innovation stock photo by Peshkova/Shutterstock