Keeping your business fresh and creative is one of the most difficult challenges facing a leader of any company, big or small. But it’s also one of the most important tasks of any boss, because it will help decide whether you’re at the front – or the back – of your pack. “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower,” said Steve Jobs.
To give yourself the best chance to think creatively you really need to spend time away from your business. That’s a task in itself for many leaders. Entrepreneurs are not used to sitting around navel gazing – they’re can-do people who are accustomed to leading from the front.
It can also be difficult to disentangle yourself from work. Running a small business can be all consuming, particularly if it has only a handful of workers. Something new always seems to crop up which needs you to make a decision right away. But it’s important to free yourself from the tyranny of the here and now, to give yourself the space to think about where your company needs to go next.
I read a fascinating interview with the designer Philippe Starck in the Harvard Business Review recently, in which he said he goes to a log cabin for three months each year. His daily life is such a whirlwind – travelling, meeting clients, working on projects, doing media work – he can’t do any of the creative thinking that is essential to his work. So he takes himself off to the middle of nowhere every summer so he can focus his energy on thinking. “I live with myself in front of my white page,” he says.
You don’t need to do anything quite as drastic as Starck, but it’s important to take yourself away from time to time. There are certain key moments in the lifecycle of every business when it is facing a new challenge that demands a creative response from its leader: a new competitor or regulation, perhaps that creates a shift in the market.
And it’s not navel gazing: you don’t need to take a step back so you can look at your business, you need to get away from it so you can see what’s going on around your business, in the outside world.
“Innovation is the specific tool of entrepreneurs, the means by which they exploit change as an opportunity for a different business or a different service,” said Peter Drucker, the business management guru. Searching for new ideas is a little like searching for truffles, he said. You need to look carefully around you to hunt for the telltale signs of where they are hidden. “Entrepreneurs need to search purposefully for the sources of innovation, the changes and their symptoms that indicate opportunities.”
Stepping away from your business might not necessarily make it bigger, but it will help to make it better. Continually improving your business should be the aim of every boss – the Japanese have a term for it: Kaizen. If you don’t look for small ways in which you can do things better one of your competitors is likely to come along and steal your lunch.
So leave your laptop, turn off your smartphone and take yourself away for a day or two. Don’t do anything – just think. Because sometimes you need to take a step back from your business so you can help it to take two steps forward.