4 Ways to Balance Urgency and Innovation in Your Startup

Balancing the long term and the short term requires finesse.

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By Chuck Cohn

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When you're starting a business, one of the biggest challenges you can face is time management. Sometimes, it can feel like you have to choose among developing that next software feature, devoting more time to marketing efforts, reviewing weekly metrics and sleeping. In a more general sense, you'll often have to decide between emphasizing long-term innovation and focusing on the urgency of immediate issues.

Urgency drives projects forward. For some individuals, it can serve as a source of motivation, but for others, it can stifle creativity. How do you instill a sense of urgency while maintaining a culture that fosters long-term innovation?

Related: When It Comes to Innovation, Here are 7 Mistakes People Make

Balancing the long term and the short term requires finesse. For example, if your team members are largely focused on beating the clock, true innovation will be difficult to achieve. On the other hand, having no deadlines at all can lead to unfinished projects.

One possible solution is to avoid treating every project like a must do. Not all projects are created equal. When you rank tasks by importance, your team will have a clearer sense of the organization's immediate goals.

Remember, too, that innovative ideas take time to be planted, nurtured and tested. If your team members have 20 projects that are all deemed "immediate," their efforts will naturally be fragmented. Prioritize by asking yourself, "Which tasks should be completed now?" and "Which ideas allow for more experimentation over a longer period of time?"

Once you set clear company priorities, your next step is to craft -- and follow -- a strategy that encourages innovation. I've reflected on this need and applied the following ideas to my company:

1. Share your vision.

When you establish clear goals, your team members can more easily apply their time, resources and energy to projects. Without a general timeline and intermediate milestones, they'll be left wondering whether to present results the next day or a year from now.

One example of clear vision setting is from Kevin Plank, CEO of Under Armour, Inc. His first goal was to create the best sweat-wicking shirt for athletes. Although Under Armour's product lineup has expanded to include footwear and wearables, it was that initial clear vision that launched the company's trajectory of success.

Related: To Continue Thriving, Make 'Innovate' Your Default Setting

2. Establish reasonable milestones.

Implementing incremental milestones allows your team members to focus on small measurable acts of innovation. For example, you might set a deadline for your team members to brainstorm 10 ideas or survey 100 consumers. While you can't dictate when creative ideas come to life, you can create an environment that encourages them.

Establishing milestones could be as straightforward as drawing a Gantt chart or using project management software, such as Basecamp, Asana and Trello. However you choose to manage your projects, give your team members visible goals to work toward.

3. Communicate.

When you need to change course, explain why. Understanding the reasoning behind your decision will let your team know that it's an exception due to circumstance -- deadlines are still meaningful. Your transparency will establish trust and rapport, which are essential for innovation.

Better internal communication often leads to higher engagement from your team members, and industry surveys show that companies with high levels of employee engagement experience 22 percent higher profits.

4. Manage failure responsibly.

Regardless of how well you allocate time and resources between long-term projects and short-term issues, there will be inevitable missteps. When they occur, your aim should be to prevent them from happening again. Conduct a root cause analysis to determine what led to the failure. Have open discussions with your team members to troubleshoot, and avoid inadvertently discouraging innovation and thoughtful experimentation.

Maintaining a culture of long-term innovation is crucial to the success of any business. Winning business models take time to develop. Addressing immediate issues that will sustain your company in the short term is just as important. The key is to pinpoint your company's sweet spot between investing in the present and the future and capitalize on it.

Related: 3 Tips for Creating an Innovative Organization

Chuck Cohn

CEO and Founder of Varsity Tutors

Chuck Cohn is the CEO and founder of Varsity Tutors, a live learning platform that connects students with personalized instruction to accelerate academic achievement.

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