I was in Madison, Wisconsin recently to give a speech. One of the things I noticed right away is that it’s a really social, lively, connected place. It’s easy to talk to your neighbor and bring your solutions and even your challenges to the business next door. That’s how organic, authentic innovation really happens.
Community-oriented innovation can happen anywhere -- from Manhattan to Madison and even in the smallest of small towns. All it takes is creating a culture of sharing within a supportive business community. You become more willing to take risks and go outside of your business for fresh insights and answers to your toughest problems. The cross-pollination of ideas is extremely powerful.
Individuals who demonstrate an active interest in the people and places around them actually grow brain grey matter, improve cognition and become better innovators. Entrepreneurs are uniquely positioned to reach out to others. They aren’t tethered to corporate schedules and hierarchy, and they have the flexibility of both time and infrastructure to allow for more fluid business relationships. Here’s how.
Get together. Do things as a group and you’ll be surprised how much inspiration will come from, say, something as informal as a weekly walk through a local park or farmers’ market or as organized as a community business event.
I know a group of storeowners in a cozy New York City neighborhood who get together for a weekly stroll and coffee before opening time. It’s a relaxed 45 minutes where they can swap customer stories, sales strategies and resources for professional services.
Towns and cities have been organizing formal regular events to gather community members and tourists and promote business. Lancaster, Pa. sponsors First Fridays, a popular arts extravaganza held on the first Friday evening of each month. Art galleries, local boutiques and restaurants, artist studios, museums, performing groups and the art college open their doors and get involved.
Broaden your knowledge. Continuing educational opportunities are and should be a robust part of your business life. For instance, restaurant owners can gather to sponsor an expert on Umami flavors and learn more about how to apply that knowledge to their menu selections.
Going back to school for an MBA can be a daunting process -- it’s expensive and time consuming and you likely don’t need one anyway. Many community colleges, private organizations and institutions offer certificate or vocational programs, which require less time and money and enable you to broaden your expertise and widen your audience in a particular field. You’ll also meet like-minded people and grow your network.
For example, I have a friend who manages the television careers of health and wellness experts. She recently told me she’s getting a certificate in Positive Psychology at Kripalu, a yoga retreat center in Lenox, Mass. to expand her business and make her even more effective at her job.
Become part of the solution. How can your business solve problems in the community? This may not be a direct money-making idea, but it certainly helps pull a community together and forge important relationships with the people you serve or aspire to serve.
For example, Richard Branson's South African health club branch of Virgin Active launched a youth development program called Future Crew to help local high schools get physical activity back into the school day. It’s been a success and the club plans to work with other schools in South Africa to train teachers and help students become more active.
That’s the sort of community building that provides an actual healthy, safe place for people to meet and interact. Imagine if you could find a way for your business to become such a hub?
Even sponsoring local charitable events and becoming a visible presence helps cement a positive relationship between you and the local community. Those are the building blocks to help you build a strong and successful business.
The author is an Entrepreneur contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.