At the beginning of the pandemic, many early stage companies quickly pivoted their tech and services to respond to evolving customer needs — and didn’t seem to skip a beat in the process. There were other startups, on the other hand, that failed to take thoughtful, calculated risks, and the absence of change unfortunately put them on life support.
As customer and competitive pressures continue to mount, that same single-minded bent to pioneer new innovations that solve problems in completely novel ways will be what separates the tech companies that thrive from those that don’t.
Of course, that begs the question: How can you ensure that your team is prepared and empowered to solve new and unexpected challenges? It starts with assembling a group of motivated product builders with varied experiences and skill sets. This means prioritizing technical chops — while also seeking out business acumen and characteristics like creativity, excitement about grand possibilities and passion for your company’s reason for being.
Beyond aligning your team, talent and mission, here are three ways we’ve been able to drive continuous product innovation that could help shape your success, too.
3 Ways Startups Can Drive Product Innovation
- Encourage big thinking, testing and (sometimes) failing.
- Invest in thoughtful, future-focused risk.
- Embrace radical knowledge-sharing.
Encourage Big Thinking, Testing and (Sometimes) Failing
At Shelf Engine, our secret sauce is creating an environment that fosters innovation through opportunity. Forging through uncharted territory with unorthodox thinking leads to the highest level of opportunity when building a startup. Maybe it’s the opportunity to successfully build something that doesn’t exist, to create meaningful employment — or even to improve the health of our planet.
Having built a team that is ready for seemingly any challenge, we’ve focused on providing the blank canvas for them to build products that transform the food industry. Against this backdrop, our team has innovated systems in the food supply chain that simplify operations and produce massive waste-reducing results. Some of that innovation required learning from missteps before we achieved success.
However, the impact of these inevitable stumbles can be mitigated by creating an environment where failure has minor consequences. We review our slip-ups to extract key learnings — but avoid focusing on blame — so we’re able to avoid the stagnation that is so common in cultures where a fear of failure has taken root.
Invest in Thoughtful, Future-Focused Risk
Time is a limited resource on any team. We’ve seen material, positive impact to our business when we are careful to balance time spent on day-to-day tasks and basic product improvements and on high-impact projects intended to grow the business and create new capabilities.
Here’s a concrete example: At Shelf Engine, we’re currently focused on expanding into a growing set of food categories such as deli, meat and dairy. Venturing into new territories can be especially challenging because creating product support for these new frontiers requires collaboration across the entire organization and with customers themselves. Yet it’s this type of educated innovation — combined with the right amount of informed risk — that often produces the greatest gains.
If you’re simply interested in staying in place, you’ll direct your teams to dedicate 100 percent of their time to enhancing current offerings. If you’re seeking to leverage where you are today as a leaping off point to more ambitious destinations, then segment time accordingly to both improve what exists today and push toward new frontiers.
Embrace Collaboration Through Radical Knowledge-Sharing
In a startup, the path forward isn’t always clear cut. That’s part of the beauty: You’re in charge of your own destiny. When you find yourself leading people who are trying to solve puzzles that have never before been solved, it’s crucial to remove as many barriers to acquiring knowledge as you possibly can.
As a data-driven company, we believe it’s essential that our data is centrally located for teams to access, learn from, question and be inspired by — regardless of where they sit in the organization. Unbridled access to data and customer insights, coupled with regular touch points with other departments to truly understand their goals, blockers, and needs, gives your team a competitive advantage and a deep understanding of the full ecosystem that just doesn’t occur in more siloed structures. This type of cross-functional visibility gives your product-building team a more holistic view of the company and the customers it serves. Moreover, it positions them to more easily identify and evaluate new opportunities and challenges.
Our team of engineers and product magicians are able to see the immediate impact of their work to help combat the food waste crisis, which helps energize our culture of continuous innovation. If you’re fortunate to have built a team that’s steadfast in its commitment to advance your mission and is agile in how it goes about it, consider what might provide that extra boost of innovation juice.
Facilitating unprecedented collaboration across teams and divisions; investing time and resources today to fuel the future; and normalizing the missteps that every team encounters: These are the steps that will make that next big fish a lot more fun to try to catch.