As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to challenge entrepreneurs and small businesses across the world, innovation is critical now more than ever. Hear more about how businesses can be innovative during times of uncertainty in this Q&A with Hugh Stevens. Stevens is the Executive Director for the Center for Innovation and Career Advancement at the University of Texas San Antonio (UTSA). Stevens currently owns two businesses and has more than 30 years of experience in the private sector. Prior to joining UTSA, Stevens served as the Executive Director of the Harvey Najim Center for Business Innovation and Corporate Social Responsibility at St. Mary’s University.
Q: What does innovation mean to you?
A: Innovation is not necessarily creating a new widget or the latest and greatest technology. Innovation is improving upon processes and methods of doing business that are not necessarily traditional there not the same way you’re doing it. Innovation is not for innovations sake it is to improve and to expand and augment the processes that you’re using now.
Q: What does innovation look like right now?
A: We’re using virtual methods of communication which at this point probably isn’t all that innovative, it’s standard fare. Innovation to me right now is going to be how is it that we can communicate both in-person and virtually while keeping our colleagues safe and healthy. How can we be innovative right now in our communication methodology? How is it that we can stay safe and yet still communicate in-person or virtually?
Q: Why is it important right now to be innovative?
A: We should’ve been innovative ten years ago. It’s important because we need to find new ways to expand our business footprints. Given that the most innovative technique of expanding our business footprints without leaving the space that we’re in, is virtual. I can innovatively connect with my customers and clients and offer my goods and services without having to leave my house, but is that enough? I firmly believe that the innovation is our ability to see positively a significant expansion of our personal and business footprint without having to be there.
Q: What are first steps businesses can take to be innovative?
A: Do your research. Research what others are doing. Research what you believe that you can do given the parameters, the parameters being I need to stay safe, I need to stay healthy, I need communicate with people that may not think the same way I do. I need to know how it’s being done by others, but how it could be done by me, so I need to do a lot of research. I need to expand my thinking on how I deliver my goods and services and if you don’t that’s the killer part. Too many people spend too much time talking about the, “cant’s,” and they’re not talking about the “dos.”
Q: What are some tactics entrepreneurs can use to stay innovative?
A: I think the most important thing you can do is bring people into the discussion of your business model that are not necessarily related to your business model. Expand your thinking. Cast a bigger net. I conduct business in a specific way, why is it that I discuss business in that way?
Q: How has innovation changed because of the COVID-19 pandemic? Do you think the pandemic has disrupted the innovation that was happening prior to COIVD-19?
A: I think the survivors aren’t being disrupted I think they’re being forced to expand their innovation. I think they’re being more innovative. Again, innovation isn’t simply a new technology. Innovation is a new way of thinking. Think differently. Act differently. Operate differently because business owners are supposed to exchange a good for a fee. Do it differently. Part of it is being patient, we’ve got to be patient.
Q: What happens if small businesses are not able to be innovative?
A: The easy answer of course is that they’re going to have to close down. The harder answer is are you really understanding what innovation is? Are you understanding what experimentation is? Are you understanding what you need to do? It may not be that the term innovation is useful to you. It may be that the term survival is useful to you or maybe the term pivoting or repurposing. Maybe it’s a different term that you need to use to figure out a different way to conduct your business.