Start-ups and innovation

Innovation management: The key to success for Swiss SMEs?

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Today's markets are often extremely competitive, which means companies are increasingly called on to innovate. But what does an SME need to keep pace with the times? From test-and-learn strategies to traditional innovation management, our expert tips will help you find the right approach for your SME.

A lot of start-ups have innovation already bred into their DNA. They have been living in a test-and-learn culture from the very start: an idea is hatched, then developed and tested on the market, and if successful, it is pursued further.

Start-ups such as Winterthur-based company KINASTIC AG, which developed an app to improve employee health, show us how it’s done. They continue to develop their product and incorporate customer feedback directly into the development process. “This is a great opportunity for SMEs to learn about the agile way that start-ups work and how to institute a similar corporate culture,” explains Claudia Bienentreu, Head of Open Innovation at AXA.

SMEs are the backbone of the Swiss economy and in many industries they are already the market leaders. This is why it is so important to learn about innovation. The key word that SMEs hear bandied about whenever this topic pops up is “innovation management.” But what does it actually involve? And is this the right approach for your company? We’ll shed some light on the subject for you.

What is innovation management?

Innovation management involves any and all measures used to promote innovation at companies. This includes the planning, organization, management and control of the entire innovation process: from ideas through to implementation.

The goal of innovation management is to increase the value of a company. This can be achieved, for example, by launching a new product, optimizing existing services or improving internal processes.

No business is going to turn down continuous value enhancement. “But very few start-ups or SMEs have their own innovation team or innovation officer – nor do they need one,” states Claudia Bienentreu. Keep reading to find out why.

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    Claudia Bienentreu

    Claudia Bienentreu has worked at AXA Switzerland for the past 15 years, most of which she has spent in the innovation division. As a lecturer at the University of Applied Sciences in Business Administration Zurich (HWZ), she is keen to share her know-how and experience with others and looks forward to learning something new every day.

As an SME, do I need my own innovation management?

Swiss SMEs do not necessarily need traditional innovation management because they are by nature highly innovative, notes Claudia Bienentreu, “Most SMEs and start-ups have innovation automatically integrated into their product or process development.” This is because “Many small companies have to continually develop their solutions and products just to remain competitive.”

Even if SMEs can already bring the basic requirements for innovation to the table, there is enormous potential for them to better manage innovation within their own company. SMEs that take advantage of this opportunity are able to accelerate their growth or tap new customer segments. But let's take a look at how you can drive innovation in your business.

Having the courage to innovate is the cornerstone of successful growth

“Start small,” advises Claudia Bienentreu. “As an SME, i's worthwhile, for instance, to first identify an area you would like to move into and then gather ideas on how to do it.” The direct dialog that comes from workshops or discussions with employees, customers or partners provides valuable insights, and such events can be organized quickly and without much effort. Often you will discover options that can easily be implemented to improve a product or to further develop processes. And what if you find that some bigger changes are needed? “Then it may be worth taking a chance on investing in, say, a new product line or trying out new distribution methods.” Innovation is also about having the courage to try new things.

First, however, you should make space for innovation to grow in your SME. The following five components are especially important:

  1. Innovation has to benefit your strategy
    It's important that whatever efforts you make at innovating flow directly into your company strategy. You should take the time today to plan the next steps for tomorrow and ask yourself the following: Which niches will continue to give you the edge in the future? Where do you have unique know-how? Combine your answers to these questions with current market and trend analyses to gather innovative ideas for future offers. This will give you a long-term advantage over your competitors.
  2. The role of executive management
    Executive management should be clear and decisive in setting the direction of your innovation strategy. Where do you want to take your company? This question should be central to your deliberations. Strong leadership by executive management and active interest on the part of managers are both crucial to this process. Give clear guidelines and point the way forward.
  3. Clarity makes for better ideas
    By communicating a clear goal and emphasizing the strengths of your strategy, you create the space your employees need to innovate. This will lead to better, more target-oriented ideas that provide true added value for your company.
  4. Use resources in a targeted fashion
    As an SME, you have to weigh up exactly where you want to invest your time and resources. The main idea is to set meaningful objectives, such as attracting new customer segments in the year ahead. By setting and measuring these goals, you are not only saving time but also building the motivation needed to realize your ambitions.
  5. Gradually build up your culture of innovation
    Foster your employees’ creativity by banishing the fear of failing in your company and make a point of recognizing brilliant ideas. You should also avoid silo structures – innovation works much better in interdepartmental teams. 

No innovation management without challenges

Just as running a company has its challenges, so too does innovation management. Often great ideas come to nothing because the processes involved are too clunky or there just weren’t enough resources. “To avoid this, you need to establish clear processes and responsibilities. And the timeline and budget also have to be clearly defined so that your team has not only the roadmap, but also the resources it needs for innovation,” says Claudia Bienentreu.

Another pitfall to watch out for is clinging to unsuitable ideas. To prevent this, you need to have a constant flow of new inspiration and the courage to toss out ideas that are not so feasible. But the focus should always remain on the target group, she says: “You must know the exact needs of your customers and actively include them in the innovation process.”

And lastly, SMEs also need to understand they don’t have to master every challenge alone. “SMEs should absolutely take advantage of offers from government agencies or other organizations that are specifically aimed at supporting innovation in SMEs and which provide the corresponding financing for these opportunities.” Claudia Bienentreu also recommends creating synergies by teaming up with universities or start-ups. “We do this at AXA too. One example is the successful collaboration between AXA and KINASTIC AG, which helps our customers promote employee health.”

And remember: Every company has what it takes to be innovative.

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