Stealth Disruptors: Building Big Innovation in a Small Business

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Andrew Johnson, CEO, ShelfAware LLCAndrew Johnson, CEO, ShelfAware LLC

Welcome to the era of disruptive technology! "Yeah, yeah," you say "Another trendy article on vague, over used concepts like Big Data & Industry 4.0. Those are esoteric concepts that the 'Big Guys' can waste time exploring." But read on, because I can assure you that these big concepts can be used by small business to disrupt the marketplace. In fact small businesses are better positioned to use technological innovations to disrupt because their small size makes them inherently nimble and capable of incremental innovation that leads to big disruption. So read on and you will walk away with several keys concepts for profitable innovations, especially the disruptive kind, that will make you fully ready to compete against your biggest business rival.

So where do we start? You start by establishing the finish. Let me explain with an illustration. Think of innovation as a race. “The winners will approach the race to Industry 4.0 as a series of sprints but manage their program as a marathon.”  I love this quote from Vladimir Lukic. It sets the stage perfectly for our application points.

Define a Big Picture strategy. Step back and take the 10,000 foot view of your company and define some big picture objectives. Draw your finish line for the marathon you are about to run. And then prioritize technology improvements that work together towards those objectives. The thought of implementing some giant overarching technologically advanced manufacturing system is too daunting. There are a lot of bite-sized pieces of technology that are designed to stand alone and still offer a quick return on investment (ROI). Some are literally plug and play, requiring no integration into your current business systems yet returning big value. Start with a few of those in the 2019 calendar year. These small tech innovations are the “sprints” that will allow you to race to the finish line. Define the big goals first, and then maximize the impact of these incremental innovations by combining them in a comprehensive program.

Next, hire an outside Change Agent to act on your new big picture innovation strategy and give them the authority to start rethinking aspects of your organization and its processes. Change is hard, and it takes discerning, strong people to enact that change. Better yet, hire this change champion from outside of your organization. This anonymity allows the change champion to start free and untangled in long-standing work relationships, setting them up for quick success. They need to destroy some processes, destroy some departments, and start over. Clean slate it! This process can be painful, but that is what you need sometimes to mature, to grow your company.

Lastly, don’t wait! Your competition has already started. This is the killer part about competition, about capitalism. And it's the part I love. I love being ahead of the pack with a competitive advantage. A chance to revolutionize industries, to be a thought leader, a game changer! Or conversely you can find yourself on the wrong side of this tech disruption.  You’ve ignored your changing landscape, refused to adapt, and now your world leaving you behind. With technology today, death by doing nothing can happen faster than ever before. So don’t hesitate: Start now or risk being on the wrong side of your market's disruption.

I will end with a word of caution. If you take my advice and start this race, getting out in front of your competition, you will quickly find yourself alone with no one running next to you because they are all behind you. This first place position is exciting, but soon it can become scary, leaving you with no one to compare notes with. You will find yourself asking questions like “Where do we take this now?” and “What’s next?” only to receive no answers because you are alone.

If you experience this feeling of loneliness then you could be a true innovator or you might just completely lost. So how do you know if you are an innovator or just lost? Follow the value. If your incremental innovations are continuing to return value to the customer, to the market as a whole, continue. If the next innovation doesn’t return value, pivot to find the value, to get back on track. An innovation's growth is only limited by its ability to return value. If your innovation’s ROI is expansive and you have the drive to keep innovating, eventually you can revolutionize entire industries.

Andrew Johnson is an entrepreneur, inventor, and business owner. Formerly the sales manager at the family distribution company, O-ring Sales & Service, he is now pursuing a new endeavor, a tech startup called ShelfAware, which is attempting to redefine industrial distribution by leveraging RFID technology, the internet, and the power of data.

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