Shopping for Business Boosting Ideas Outside the Company

Individual companies are facing the overall housing market crisis in their own way, yet most are constantly looking for and in need of new business ideas.

A recent study from The Conference Board shows U.S. employers rank creativity and innovation as the top two challenges for today's CEOs, especially if they cannot afford in-house research and development analytics.

The same study also shows creativity and innovation are two of the top five skills expected to grow in importance over the next five years. Sometimes groundbreaking ideas are quite expensive. So where to find them?

"Whatever the type and size of your business, you can be sure of finding more 'eureka-worthy' innovations outside it than within it," says Alexander Hiam, author of "Business Innovation For Dummies" and an expert in business strategy, high-tech entrepreneurship, new product development, branding, naming, negotiating and consulting.

"Some have been turned into successes already; others are waiting for some brave soul to develop them. Your job is to go find them." Limiting to inquiries "within your own industry or sector," he adds, is not the way to go either, because a specific market, as big as it may be, is still "far, far smaller than the entire universe of possible ideas."

It brings into the mix the suggestion to think outside the box by window-shopping where "you've never even considered looking in before."

In his book Hiam explains the tools and techniques available to today's business professionals "no matter where they stand on the corporate ladder," allowing them to become innovative thinkers.

One of his examples is Mattel Inc., a company that has looked outside its own doors for innovative ideas that helped improve its business and regularly gets ideas from the electronics, plastics and entertainment industries.

Other suggestions?

Visit the wrong trade shows, he says, the most exciting innovations often come from visits to trade shows that are far removed from your industry. It could generate "cross-fertilizing of ideas."

It helps to expand one's circle with industry peers but also add some fresh thinking from outside the boundaries of your business by talking to people outside of your normal line of work about the latest trends and challenges in their fields. Add to that list trade magazines, professional journals, and blogs from other people's fields and industries, and business news for reports of innovative behaviors in other fields. It opens "a broad flow of creative thinking."

In fact, as a rule, the most successful entrepreneurs often have experience in more than one field or profession, he says.

A finance industry professional who gets a chance to work on a marketing team for a new financial product launch "might be exposed to marketing and sales for the first time," but gain insight into how consumers view their personal finances, which might lead him to propose a successful new line of investment products.

"There are many great ways to kick off your cross-training efforts," says Hiam. "Take a class in an unfamiliar field. Use any chance you have to work on a team that's outside your comfort zone. Shadow someone in a different department at your company for a day or two. Or start by just picking up a book that explores your field of interest. The important thing is that you proactively look for opportunities to get some experience or training outside your profession."

Great ideas often come form startup firms as "the dynamic new businesses in any industry" are where much of the innovation takes place even though they tend to be ignored until some of them "gain enough market share to scare the established firms" and command attention. Which is why Hiam suggests studying them before they become widely known or even before they become successful while some of the best innovations are still fresh. "These companies represent the future of your industry."

Other suggestions include asking job candidates for their advice since while they are trying to impress they could suggest valuable business improvement ideas. "Make sure that all of your new hires have a proven history of contributing valuable ideas and also have demonstrated an ability to think on their feet during the interview process," says Hiam.

Finding out what other companies are boasting about can also help introduce a new product, reorganize to improve efficiencies, or open a new line of business based on the most current innovations. It also is a good idea to be positive, rather than negative, Hiam says. "Look at the pros and cons" to avoid dismissing ideas that may have some issues or barriers to overcome because they are not readily usable by another business. Benefits may be worth the time and trouble to adapt them, he says, but "don't force it."

It can help to be creative by brainstorming with innovative suppliers. "The reason it's good to get two or more of your suppliers in your office at the same time is that they may come up with a really clever way to combine their ideas, products, or services," says Hiam.

Finally, keeping up with market changes always provides a competitive advantage.

In many industries and professions, associations or other organizations publish standards and research on best practices, he says, and these organizations can be sources of innovations.

"In any field or profession, fewer than 10% of people stay up-to-date with leading-edge thinking and practices," notes Hiam. "By staying in touch with your industry's experts, you can be on the leading edge with those who implement new practices and approaches."