Even small business owners who don't consider themselves innovative or creative can have great ideas and tremendous payoffs simply by being more observant -- willing to test and measure what works and what doesn't.
In my experience, what really works when generating new ideas in business is sticking with basics, then combining or recombining existing "assets" or resources into new products, services or niches.
Here are five suggestions to get you thinking, moving and looking in different directions for ideas you can apply to your own business:
1. Get inspired by other industries.
A great example of this is used-car retailer Carmax, a company that originally started as a retail initiative from executives at the electronics firm Circuit City. From lessons learned in researching the frustrations buyers faced when shopping for cars, the Carmax team developed a concept that reinvented the used-car industry. Take note that the team didn't go after the highly competitive new-car category, but instead focused on used cars, an industry infamous for poor service, shoddy salesmanship and questionable quality.
Your own takeaways from other industries needn't be so grandiose. For example, guaranteeing your work in an industry that doesn't or "can't" offer guarantees can be a game-changer. My own company adopted a guarantee a few years ago that allows us to offer a value proposition that is very competitive in our market.
2. Mine your customers' needs.
This seems obvious, but I'm always amazed how many companies fail to ask for -- or more importantly, listen to -- customer opinions on services, selection, or added value they're looking for someone to deliver.
Complaints are also a good start. They can signal buyer frustrations that in most cases can be relieved with better service, delivery and communication.
Questions are also good prompts. "Do you sell this?" or "Can you do this for me?" may lead you to discover a way to offer new goods or services that cost very little to implement but generate revenues with significant margins and returns on investments.
3. Listen to your team.
Your team is another source for great ideas, especially when it comes to productivity and efficiency in process or operations. If you're willing to ask the questions and listen, you'll probably find two or three great ideas you can implement with little disruption to your current operations.
This, by the way, is applicable in any business. A great example of this is Subway's game-changing "$5 Footlong" promotion, originally developed and tested by a Florida franchisee in 2004.
4. Hit the books.
Many owners discount the value of seminars, books and workshops, but there's no better way to get ideas than to learn from those who have "been there" and "done that" before you.
We live in a rare age where more information is readily available than at any other time in history. Take advantage of our capital stock of accumulated knowledge and information. You'll start to see connections between categories and industries you never realized before.
5. Find yourself a trusted advisor.
Getting an outside perspective can add value and dimension to you operation, especially if the person working with you is growth-oriented and has a proven track record of success.
A good advisor can typically look at your operations and give you a number of strategically sound suggestions you may not have thought of before, whether it's re-purposing idle stock or capacity for new uses or markets, re-pricing your product or service lines, repositioning or updating your brand, or adopting new processes for going after new or existing customers.
The best ideas arrive when we're willing to see and do new things. Start noticing what areas of your business you'd like to innovate or turn around. Not every fix may be a good fit for you, but the more you explore and test, the faster you will find innovations with a potential to be transformational for your company.