the-garageOn my recent trip to Microsoft’s campus, I visited a place that they call The Garage, which is an innovation center open 24/7 to every Microsoft* employee. After being greeted by a video from Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella talking about the importance of innovation, we learned that the resources in The Garage – from a traditional “makers” space to all kinds of components and personnel that can help with problem solving – are available to help employees in any department create innovative solutions to problems.

It’s been so successful that not only have they created projects that reside around campus (like a vending machine that lends you tech that you might need for testing), there are a whole host of products that they have actually helped “ship.”  These range from a software called “Fetch!” that helps to classify a dog’s breed directly from a photo to a chat and photo program called “Twist.”

inside-the-garage-1Obviously, this type of focus on innovation has permeated Microsoft in recent years from their innovative cloud offerings to their slick Surface tablets and Surface Studio devices. But, this type of focus on innovation isn’t just helpful to a tech giant like Microsoft, it can help any kind of small business, too.

Here are some key learnings from The Garage that you can apply to your business.

Any business can benefit from hacking: When you think of a hackathon, you may think of a bunch of programmers or techies sitting and coding. But, any small business can use that format for problem solving. Whether it’s creating new products, improving operational processes or otherwise, consider having a hackathon with your own employees or with other business owners. Here’s a taste of what last year’s winners created.

Focus on “quick ship”: Perfection can be the enemy of progress, so in The Garage, the idea is to quickly finish projects, not make them perfect, and to move on to new projects. This philosophy can help other small businesses that often go past minimum viable products or service offerings and take far too long to bring their products to market.

inside-the-garage-2It’s all about the team: In The Garage, the outcomes are only as good as the people. While it may seem like tech is the focal point, it’s truly about people collaborating. Getting the right people in your business on board and focused on helping each other can really make the difference in getting your business to the next level.

Allowing employees the time to innovate can benefit your business: In The Garage, the employees aren’t often solving problems related to their work, they are doing personal development projects. While this may not seem like it would benefit your business, it truly does. Employees – while working on pet projects – learn new skills, new approaches to problem solving and expand their creativity. These new or enhanced perspectives and skills carry forward to the employee’s approach to their own work, making them more innovative in their day-to-day jobs.

* Disclosure: this company has a client relationship with or its affiliated entities