Small Business: What Happened to Innovation, Creativity, and Flexibility?

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staleInnovation, creativity, and flexibility have become a small business battle cry in the last few years – and appropriately so. We found (find) ourselves in new and different economic territory where what may have once worked no longer works (or as well.) When faced with the new or different, logic will tell you that you’re going to need to respond to and embrace “new and different” in your small business as well.

Yet, with all the attention focused on innovation, creativity, and flexibility within small business, there is one “tried and true” business tool that has not just taken a back seat – but has gotten an undeserved bum rap: Routine.

Wash, Rinse, Repeat
Many small business owners may have abandoned or forgotten the value of routine in this new and different business environment. Many of us have come to believe that following routines do nothing to support innovation, creativity, and flexibility. Routines are predictable and unchanging – so how in the world can instituting routines support success in a world that has become increasingly unpredictable and is constantly changing?

It may not seem very logical, but the very reasons you may think routine stymies innovation, creativity, and flexibility can actually support your ability as a small business owner to instill these essential qualities into the culture of your business.

Now, you might be thinking that’s a statement that can’t be supported. By definition routines don’t vary and instead remain “the same” – so how can a routine support the ability to be flexible? Routines are also a “usual sequence” – and the usual certainly isn’t innovative or creative.

We tend to view routine as mindless patterns of activity where you’re always following the same course of action no matter what the circumstances. Routines are just habitual activities that we don’t even think about; we simply follow them – but this is also why routines are so valuable.

Routines support our ability to focus. When a scientist uses a microscope or an astrophysicist uses a telescope they need to follow certain routines to focus those tools. If they didn’t follow those routines their vision would be clouded and it would be easy to miss important details. Similarly, following routines in your small business allows you a clear picture of anything on the horizon that impacts the vision you have for your business. Routines provide a focus where you can more clearly see – and respond to in innovative, creative, and flexible ways – circumstances, mistakes, gaps, and opportunities that you might otherwise miss.

Routines enhance performance. If routines are “mindless” you’d think they certainly can’t be counted on to enhance performance. Try telling that to an Olympic athlete. It’s easy to overlook the fact that habitually following certain routines makes us better at what we do. A gymnast doesn’t just develop individual skills and when the Olympics come around get out there and throw a routine together on the spot. Instead, they put a routine together ahead of time and then habitually practice that routine for the purpose of enhancing their performance.

Routines develop good business habits. There’s a lot of great advice swimming around on the Internet as to business best practices. But, just knowing about a best practice doesn’t amount to much if you actually don’t make it a practice to execute it. That’s were following routines come into play as doing so makes it a “habit” to follow best practices.

Focused, habitual, high-performing routines provide direction. When a hiker decides to take a trip into the back country they routinely carry a map and check their compass. These routines are essential to their survival – even when hikers plan to follow a mapped, established trail. Checking a compass and following progress along the way on the map keeps the hiker going in the right direction – especially when they later find the trail they planned to follow has been washed out. Now the routine of checking the compass and following the map is what’s going to allow that hiker the flexibility of forging a new (creative and innovative) trail.

As a small business owner you’ve planned a trail that leads to success. Routines can help you identify as well as predict unforeseen challenges or obstacles you come across on your trail. While flexibility, creativity, and innovation certainly are central to small business success, routines can help pinpoint when and where to apply that flexibility, creativity, and innovation.

Last modified: May 15, 2013
Annie Kile


This story is part of our Small Business Corner, a peek into the life and trials of small business owners.

Category: MPR Authored, Small Business, Small Business Corner, small business owners, tips

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