How to get your employees on board the innovation bandwagon and create a corporate culture that understands the value of choosing the best ideas and turning them into real actions.
In Part I of this article series, we looked at how even when business is good, electrical distributors need to think about how to take their best cocktail-napkin ideas and transform them into initiatives that help push their companies forward. The task sounds straightforward enough, but for companies that haven’t traditionally focused on constant innovation, it can actually be pretty difficult.
“It all starts with looking at the big picture,” says Jesse Nieminen, co-founder and chairman at Viima Solutions, a Finnish company that helps companies turn ideas into innovations. That means painting a picture of where your industry is right now and where it’s headed, he says, and then developing a compelling story for what changes need to happen to keep your distributorship relevant, healthy, and profitable in the face of those changes.
“Make sure the entire team knows what’s behind those changes, and that you’re serious about making those shifts,” says Nieminen, who tells distributors to involve their employees in the process (versus just “springing” new ideas, plans, and strategies on them without any notice). “Take small, incremental steps in the right direction. Once you start to see some quick and easy ‘wins,’ you can build on that momentum and start taking bigger steps—one at a time.”
Don’t Get Stuck
When asked where companies tend to hit stumbling blocks when deploying new ideas and initiatives, Nieminen says too many of them try to bite off more than they can chew. This is where the whole “don’t try to eat an elephant in one bite” philosophy kicks into gear, and helps companies drill down into 1) the strategies that they most want to implement, and 2) the individual steps that will help them achieve those goals.
“When you take on really big projects, and if you don’t already have a culture of innovation in place, then it’s really easy to get stuck,” says Nieminen. This inertia not only impacts a distributor’s well-meaning managers and leaders, but it also makes employees feel as if there’s no real reason to put any effort into new initiatives. “Frustration sets in and the staff starts to lose faith in the whole agenda of changing and building a new future for the company.”
To sidestep this trap, distributors should go back to that “big picture” thinking, communicate their goals across the organization, and then come up with a workable plan of action for achieving those goals. For example, Nieminen recently worked with an energy producer that knew it wanted to ride the current wave of cleaner, more distributed energy production, but didn’t quite know how to get from Point A to Point B and make that happen.
“The company knows that’s where the world is heading, and that it has to be a part of that trend, but it didn’t know what exact steps it had to take to figure out and implement those cleaner energy processes,” says Nieminen, who helped the company tackle the huge undertaking by breaking the higher goal down into small, incremental steps that employees could actually get on board with (versus trying to switch the entire company over to solar or wind power overnight, for example).
Nieminen says even the most established, entrenched electrical distributor can make positive changes that enable adaptation in the changing business environment, and points to internal culture as a great starting point for companies operating in traditional B2B industries. The problem to overcome, he adds, is the belief that industrial, B2B-focused companies can’t be (or, haven’t historically been) particularly innovative.
“When your culture isn’t progress-oriented, it can be a real mental block,” says Nieminen. To work through that issue, he says managers and leaders should take a look at how their businesses have evolved over the last few years. Are you at an impasse? Is the company growing its revenues? Is it attracting new customers? Is it branching into new markets? Is employee turnover high? Are margins workable? The answers to these and other questions can serve as good conversation-starters for idea generation sessions.
Those sessions can help establish the company as an innovator that wants to change, and that’s willing to allocate time, effort, and resources to turning ideas into actions. “Once you start to tell the story of being innovators and carving your own path as a company, it can really energize employees to help drive progress,” says Nieminen, “and get the distributorship back on the right track towards growth.”
Taking Baby Steps
Matthew Turner, founder of the Boston Turner Group and a marketing professional who worked for NxTrend, Infor Distribution Group, and Accellos, says getting employees involved with the idea generation, selection, and implementation process can make the difference between a successful effort and one that falls by the wayside within a few months (or even less).
Take the electrical distributor that wants to improve its competitive position against e-tailers like Amazon Business by improving the effectiveness of its outside sales force. One idea under that larger umbrella could focus on sales training, and on helping reps understand the value of becoming a true “partner” that helps the electrical contractor achieve its own goals. “That’s something Amazon can’t do,” says Turner.
Knowing this, Turner says distributors can expand that sales-focused effort to the rest of the company, which can also take part in the customer-partnership effort—from the inside customer service rep to the accounting team to the warehouse manager. “By emphasizing the same criteria across all of your employees,” says Turner, “they’ll be saying to themselves, ‘Okay, we’ve got it now; we’re really focused on market demand, customer loyalty, and profitability.’”
To distributors that want to get the ball rolling on innovation, Nieminen says a good first step is to ask this question: Why do we actually need to innovate in the first place? “The key is not to carve out this perfect picture where everything falls neatly into place,” says Nieminen, “but to create a big-picture vision of where you want to be and why you want to change. Then, start taking some practical steps based on those broader goals.”
Tagged with best practices, innovation