How to stimulate innovation in an SME

Why, as a business, should innovation keep you awake at night even though everything is going well? As soon as a company becomes successful, the natural reaction is to start playing it safe and take few risks. According to Katleen De Stobbeleir, Professor of Leadership at Vlerick Business School, companies have too little awareness of a common phenomenon within their ecosystems: The Red Queen’s Race. It was with these words that she opened a panel discussion organised by the Flemish Agency for Entrepreneurial Training  - Syntra Flanders and Vlerick Business School at the Ghent campus on 5 October.

The Red Queen’s Race refers to a scene in Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’, in which Alice races the Red Queen. But however fast Alice runs, she can’t catch the queen. “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place,” says the Red Queen.

Syntra debate innovation
Professor Katleen De Stobbeleir

In order to win the race, Alice has to use another strategy on top of speed. Katleen De Stobbeleir: “Innovation is not only necessary to achieve a competitive advantage, but also to be able to survive. It is a process that is made up of four important steps: generating ideas, selection, promotion and implementation. You have to take the necessary measures throughout the entire process.

Following the introduction, audience’s vision of innovation was investigated through a number of statements. A panel of experts discussed the apparent obstacles on the basis of the results.

Syntra debate innovation
From left to right: Roeland Pelgrims (Palmyra Brands), Tine Holvoet (Vlerick Business School), Peter Lambert (Nobilis Worldwide Services) and Katleen De Stobbeleir (Vlerick Business School)

#1 Innovation is a magic spell through which Flemish companies aim to remain competitive, but we don’t see many results.

Tine Holvoet (Senior Research Associate, Vlerick Business School) confirms this: “Recent innovation statistics show that only 20% of Flemish entrepreneurs state that they are working on something new.” Other panel members do think that there are noticeable results, however. Reference was made to the start-up scene in Flanders, for example, which they believe is very innovative.

#2 What is the most important characteristic of an innovative climate in an SME?

Firstly, there is a need for creativity. A lack of this results in traditional family companies introducing too few innovations, for example. Secondly, a safe context is essential. People have to have the feeling that suggesting new ideas is welcome and encouraged. Finally, there is a need for cooperation. The focus here should be on the iterative process of thinking together quickly and very frequently.

#3 How do you stimulate innovation in an SME?

In the same way that many roads lead to Rome, there are different ways to stimulate innovation. According to the audience, the most effective initiatives are:

  • Recruiting a variety of profiles (41%)
  • Being less directive as a leader (28%)
  • Providing employees with input from outside through training or networking (24%)
  • Receiving guidance and coaching around innovation yourself as a business manager (7%)
#4 What is your role as an organisation in stimulating innovation in the SME?

During the debate, four different roles were defined as a response to this question. In the first instance, it is important that creativity is stimulated, secondly, new knowledge needs to be offered and, thirdly, it is important for practical examples to be provided. Last but not least, networking is an important way of stimulating innovation in SMEs.

#5 What is the most efficient way to convince SMEs of the added value of innovation?

The audience believed that the following solutions were most effective here:

  • Working around concrete challenges (45%)
  • Sharing good examples of innovation (41%)
  • Building bridges between SMEs by creating networks (14%)

The panel members concluded with innovation advice for the attendees:

  • Highlight the good examples within your business.
  • Understand that external training often generates wonderful ideas and represents major added value for the development of your employees.
  • Replace buzzwords with a more analytical approach to innovation.
  • Ask each other for advice.
  • Flemish businesses hold a lot of cards. With a small nudge in the right direction, Flanders can be on the world map.
  • Do away with internal emails, focus on coffee corners and provide plenty of informal moments for enriching knowledge.

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