Innovation in Family Firms

The first “Innovation in Family Firms” workshop was organised by Dr Udeni Salmon from the Mercia Centre for Innovation Leadership at Keele Hall on May 1st 2018. The workshop was organised in conjunction with the Institute for Small Business and Entrepreneurship (ISBE) Special Interest Group for Family Business. ISBE is a joint academic and business network which brings academic insight to real-world small business and entrepreneurship practice.

The workshop consisted of three research-informed sessions, which brought lessons learned from academic research to the family firm owners and managers who attended the session.

Dr Udeni Salmon led a self-exploratory session where family firm owners were asked to identify their “Innovation Type”. Based on her PhD research, Dr Salmon has developed a taxonomy of five types of family firm innovator: the – Spontaneous Radical; the Statist Altruist; the Patient Opportunist; the Curious Traveller and the Cautious Conservative. Family firm owners were given advice as how best to make the most of the innovator type so that they can progress both radical and incremental innovation in a sustainable and collaborative way. Family firm owners were quick to recognise not only their “innovator type”, but also those of their family members who had founded the firm.

Professor Claire Seaman then shared her insights from Scotland, including the practical steps that she has taken to develop family firm innovation, such as connecting family firms with academics, policy-makers and communities. Professor Seaman shared her research for the family business networking group Family Business United Scotland. Professor Seaman is currently developing Scotland’s top 100 family businesses. These firms make a huge contribution to the economy by generating £1billion in profit before tax, creating 11% of onshore GDP and by employing 100,000 people.  The participants noted the similarities between Scotland’s rural and small-town family firms, and their firms, based in Stoke on Trent and Staffordshire. Family firm owners suggested that a similar family firm networking club for local businesses in Stoke and Staffordshire would be most helpful.

Dr Natalia Vershinia then discussed her research into the role played by gender in family firms. Family firm owners were able to discuss the ways in which women in their family firms were either empowered to speak their minds, or were silenced. The role of gender in innovation was also discussed including the way that women in family firms were allowed to make and implement suggestions for new products and processes in the firm.

Finally, Dani Saveker, founder of Families in Business and member of a family firm introduced her Global Life Alignment System. The GLAS system can help individuals, including family firm owners, to balance their life and their work. The participants agreed that the pressure of running a family firm can create a life that feels out of balance. Dani was able to share some practical suggestions for how they could use the GLAS system to bring their world back into harmony.

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Family Firm Leaders and Researchers share insights and solve problems

Comments from participants on the day were highly positive:

“I am definitely going to share details of the innovator type with my sister.”

“I found it really helpful to learn that the challenges my family’s business face are not unique to us.”

“I need to find my “Why”. Why am I working so hard? What is my journey all about?”

“I’m going to take a concrete action to connect with the other people from the workshop.”

“I feel energised! I’ve definitely increased my knowledge.”

In summary, there is an appetite from family firm leaders for research-informed learning to help them with the challenges of innovation in a family firm.

What is the single biggest mistake an SME owner can make?

Today’s blog post is by David Lowe, Entrepreneur in Residence at the MCIL programme. David talks to us about the MCIL programme, how it helps entrepreneurs and shares his many years of insights from working with business leaders.

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David Lowe

What is your role on the MCIL project?

I’m one of four and soon to be five Entrepreneurs in Residence for Keele’s Mercia Centre for Innovation Leadership.  We co-develop and deliver high quality programme content, alongside the academics from the Keele Management School.  We share practical insights to ensure the content of the programme is suitable for practical implementation. We also coach business leaders on the programme on a one-to-one basis to help them grow and develop their businesses.

What skills do you bring to your role?

Strategy is my personal forte, and as a coach/consultant I have successfully assisted a large number of SME’s over the last 14 years to both grow and to innovate. I’m a problem solver by nature, and I’m fortunate enough to have a talent for the assimilation of wide ranging information; either adding strategic value or simply applying my knowledge towards helping to solve the more practical day to day challenges. My colleagues have complementary skills sets: Will Pritchard is experienced in working with start-ups; Carolyn Roberts is a product innovation expert; David Townson is expert in product design.  This means that there is a lot of synergy as well as a lot of energy across the team.

Why do you enjoy your job?

I get a real kick out of helping businesses to solve their strategic problems and to drive innovation. We challenge all of our participants positively, try to ask the right questions, and we help wherever we can with new approaches. I absolutely love what I do.

What is the single worst thing that a business owner can do?

I’d say that the single biggest bad habit that business leaders get drawn into, is where they are doing so much working in their business that they don’t spend nearly enough time and effort working on their business. Indeed, for me, working with business leaders, no matter what the theme or the headline task, it nearly always means actually getting them doing something tangible as opposed to just saying they do it.

Why is innovation important for a business owner?

I also try very hard to get them to buy into the fact that there is very solid evidence of a strong relationship between innovation, growth and profitability: innovative companies do genuinely tend to have higher profit levels for example. Putting it simply…

Innovation = Good

No innovation = Bad

When helping leaders to see innovation as part of their thriving and surviving, I always do my best to ensure that they understand that ‘doing it’ is what actually matters!

Why should an SME owner join the MCIL programme?

Whether working with me or one of my colleagues, we offer energy, enthusiasm, focus, and commitment to making a real difference. We can help businesses get to where they are going much more effectively than they may otherwise have done without us.We are just entering the final phase of delivery for the very first cohort of MCIL, and its plain for all to see that all the business leaders on the programme have benefited as individuals, and that their businesses are all the better for the experience too!

What has been the most exciting MCIL programme achievement?

Beyond the immediate theme of innovation, what’s got me most excited personally is that the companies we are working with are creating jobs! In fact, they are creating significantly more jobs than we’d originally envisaged. This very tangible ripple of new employment that we are helping to drive will have positive associated benefits for the Stoke and Staffordshire area for years to come. This makes me even more proud in terms of being involved in the delivery of this leadership programme.

To set David’s insights into context, try the reading list below.

Further Reading

Working in the Business, not On the Business Geri Stengel for Forbes, June 2012

Dynamic Delegation: Shared, Hierarchical, and Deindividualized Leadership in Extreme Action Teams Klein K., Zieghart, J., Knight A., Zhao Y. (2006), Administrative Science Quarterly, vol: 51 (4) pp: 590-621