‘Innovate or die!’ Start-ups use this catchphrase as a useful reminder that if they don’t keep up with change, the business could quickly go under. For a new business, it’s an all-too-real scenario because the margin between success and failure can be very thin: a kneejerk reaction to change in legislation, a fad that doesn’t quite catch on as a trend, an accident that forces a key person to take a significant amount of leave.

To restrict ‘innovate or die!’ and its companion cry, ‘pivot!’ to just start-ups would be a disservice to all businesses, however. We’re used to established businesses being able to weather changes due to their size and experience, but the truth is today’s business environment is less certain and more prone to change than ever. Antiquated business models that refuse to change will fall into the death spiral, and if they don’t treat a problem as an opportunity and react quickly then there’s no hope for them. Any business can, and should, use start-up logic to thrive.

Why embrace change?

Businesses provide solutions and if your business is geared towards solving a problem, you must realise that problems change. If you had a business that only built CD racks and couldn’t pivot to build other kinds of shelving and storage, it would be dead by now.

Additionally, there are always new problems and different ways to solve a problem that your business needs to anticipate and address. Imagine if you were the only auto retailer that had the authority to import genuine Lotus car parts, but due to a change in brand management Lotus let other retailers import them too. If you had staked a good proportion of your business on brand exclusivity, that could spell the end of your firm.

Problems change, which means your solutions need to change, and your business needs to embrace change to stay relevant. This is not a start-up-only challenge. Start-ups may be particularly sensitive to change, but they are not the only victims of it.

Innovation helps

The word ‘innovation’ is often thrown around as a buzzword, but the act of innovation is really about adjustment, making changes to established solutions by introducing new methods, ideas or products. Fostering an innovation-ready mindset is one way to make sure we can adapt to current standards and expectations.

On its own, this is enough for most businesses. To become especially successful, however, businesses can’t just rely on their ability to react to change. Being able to anticipate change and improve your products, services and processes to make them resilient to change is the next level.

Here’s one way to think about the difference. If you were a mail-order business in the 90s, transitioning to ecommerce would have been the natural next step in the age of online shopping. That’s an example of reacting to change; mail-order and online shopping are pretty much the same thing but on different platforms.

If you could see beyond the platform, however, you might notice that there are other opportunities in the transition. You could have innovation around the payment methods, for example, or the delivery speed. A local ecommerce venture that can offer same-day delivery is going to edge out an overseas counterpart where shoppers have to wait several days, or even weeks for delivery, especially if the items are time sensitive. There’ll always be someone who’ll gratefully pay for an express-delivered dress shirt to wear for an important dinner after an unfortunate incident with an iron.

The businesses swimming ahead of the wave will always have the edge over the ones that are just treading water to stay afloat.

The role of technology

There are sayings like ‘be an inch wide and a mile deep’, which is an analogy for becoming a specialist rather than being a generalist. While this has some merit in environments that are stable and predictable – running a dental practice, for example – it can be risky in more volatile industries such as IT, where things are changing all the time.

One remedy is to employ tools to help you navigate a changing world. Don’t be afraid of technology. Many people put new technology in the too-hard basket, forgetting that it represents an opportunity to help you to keep on top of change. It is not the whole answer, however. Understand the problems you are trying to solve using a traditional business perspective, but then employ emerging technologies in your solution to gain a competitive edge. No matter what the industry, service or product, look at technology as an opportunity.

For example, the evolution of technology is an opportunity, not a threat, to the branding and creative marketing services that my agency offers. We integrate the latest developments in technology with traditional advertising and creative campaigns. By integrating Bluetooth and near field communication technology with outdoor advertising activations, and combining virtual reality with brand events, we have not lost focus of our core business purpose but, by innovating, we have longevity and can added greater value to our clients.

Regularly ask yourself: if you set up a new business tomorrow to compete with your current business, what would it look like? What does it do differently? What tools and technology would it employ? See that change and be that competitor.