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Ori Sivan and Joe Silver co-founded Greenmaker Supply Co. to market sustainable building supplies to mainstream builders, contractors and homeowners. To help people unfamiliar with sustainability make more informed choices, Sivan, 31, developed a set of guidelines called "Seven Seeds of Sustainability" that explains trade-offs between water and energy conservation, low toxicity, recycling, renewability and other issues.
The innovation helped Greenmaker reach $1 million in sales in 2006, its second year in business, and compelled Illinois' governor to select the 12-person Chicago company as one of the state's most innovative. Sivan is now focused on keeping Greenmaker innovative. "The vision," he says, "is to become an engine of innovation."
Entrepreneurs innovate in order to be more competitive. "That's what I hear practically every time I get hired for a job: I want to be more competitive," says Arthur VanGundy, a creativity and innovation consultant and author of Getting to Innovation: How Asking the Right Questions Generates the Great Ideas Your Company Needs.
Indeed, Sivan has to keep innovating to stay competitive. U.S. companies invested $342.9 billion in R&D in 2006, up 6 percent from 2005, according to a 2007 National Science Foundation study. But generating a steady stream of useful innovations is difficult. While companies have lots of ideas, not all are marketable, VanGundy notes. And some that are fail to be implemented due to lack of foresight.
To innovate continuously, start with a vision of what you want to create, VanGundy suggests. Frame innovation efforts in ways that will solve your customers' problems and make sense to them. Challenge assumptions by asking, "Why does it have to be this way?" Don't include too many criteria at first; look for the idea and tailor it to financial parameters later, VanGundy says.
Once you've framed your innovation quest, e-mail surveys allow you to cheaply and quickly gather ideas from lots of people, then sort through them for the best ones. Involve employees at all levels as well as customers, suppliers and other stakeholders in the brainstorming. "Many people appreciate the opportunity to participate in the front end," VanGundy says. "If you do that, you'll have more buy-in."
A daylong creativity retreat is a time-tested method for collecting ideas that may fuel innovation. Innovation software can help spur new ways of thinking about a problem and track and organize possible solutions. Crowdcasting is a more narrowly applicable technique that involves offering a prize to anyone inside or outside the company who solves a knotty problem.
At Greenmaker, Sivan hopes to create protocols for testing green products to help customers choose wisely. His challenge also includes choosing the right products and suppliers from the booming sustainable-business field. "Just because we're dealing with new products," he says, "doesn't mean the same old business rules don't apply."