To Go Big or Go Slow?

How innovative necessity and conservative thinking can work together to change your business and achieve future success.


We’re still in the first few months of 2016. Each new year brings with it an arbitrary clean slate, a period of time when change is contemplated, if not always acted on.

When I began writing this article, the United States was involved in a highly political chess game, and conservatives were among the players. And in our world of automotive service and collision repair professionals, innovation seemed to be the topic of all the new-car advertisements as the big auto shows opened around the country. Those are examples of how these two words can challenge us in different ways.

Another example is whether a conservative approach to your business can coexist with the need to assimilate with the innovation that’s taking place in the car-making segment of the industry. In lieu of all this, my article will strive to give you food for thought: Can you conservative-thinking owners and innovative thinkers work together and contribute to your shop coming out ahead?

Knowing which is which

Scott Berkun, author of “Making Things Happen” and “The Myths of Innovation,” writes about change and innovation in a variety of business venues. His is the best definition of the word innovation.

“Innovation,” he says, “is significant positive change. This is a high bar, and it should be. To call every little change you make in your work an innovation belittles the possible scale of progress. Innovation is also best thought of as an outcome, not an action.”

According to Berkun, innovation is simply something that is made new. But innovation has risks. A lot of business writers have had a lot to say on this subject. In researching this article, I found the following idea expressed in many different ways.

If you’re being innovative – really innovative – it’s pretty much guaranteed that many will think your idea sounds stupid, and they won’t be shy about expressing their opinions. They will tell you what they think, and they might do it loudly. They also might encourage others to speak up – negatively.

Yes, an innovative idea can look stupid at the start, but it often turns out so good that people who opposed it have to eat their words when it proves to be a success. So if you’re basically a conservative person, who likes to play it safe rather than take risks, you’re probably going to be uncomfortable moving forward with your new idea.

Most dictionaries agree that being conservative means wanting to preserve existing conditions or restore traditional ones. Conservative thinking suggests not usually liking or trusting change, especially sudden change. In fact, the Oxford dictionary defines “conservative” as “holding on to traditional attitudes and values and cautious about change or innovation.”

Conservative approaches favor traditional views and values, tending to oppose or at least limit change. A traditional, or restrained, style advances moderate, cautious or moderately cautious change. In other words, conservative ideas seem much less controversial than innovative ones.

How does this seeming clash of ideologies between conservatism and innovation affect your shop? It makes me think of the Venn Diagram, defined again by the Oxford dictionary as a “diagram representing mathematical or logical sets pictorially as circles or closed curves within an enclosing rectangle (the universal set).” Inside the curves in the center is the common ground. Venn Diagrams serve as a great problem-solving tool, one you can use to guide yourself around change. But the most useful problem-solving tool you can use when weighing these opposing viewpoints is an upside/downside list, evaluating the risk and rewards possibilities.

Guidelines for innovation

The following guidelines might seem elementary, but the weight, consequence or validity of a new idea can be sorted out using them to determine which approach to take.

One of the ways to implement innovation with “buy-in” from your employees is to involve them from the get-go. In my previous life, before I was immersed in the automotive world, I used this change exercise successfully with many clients. It translates to shop management easily.

In the shop, I suggest preparing the staff for a meeting where they can bring their new ideas for change. If necessary, let them know their ideas will be anonymous so they can feel free to express themselves. Have them submit their ideas ahead of time and mix in their ideas with the ones you want to explore for yourself.

Four Rules of Change

  1. Change is inevitable.
  2. No change means no gain.
  3. Change your mind, change your life.
  4. Progress is impossible without change.

That way, you’re creating a list that feels inclusive and accessible. Human nature likes it when we feel included and valued. It’s the best environment you can hope for when presenting change.
People resist change because they fear the unknown. They don’t know all the answers, and it makes them feel out of control. Also, setting a timeline for implementing innovative ideas helps create staff buy-in because timelines give a structure or boundary, and boundaries help people feel safe.

As a shop owner, you should be secure enough in your position to set the new idea in the correct context. By this I mean a context that feels open, positive and not threatening. Try introducing your innovative concept in the same context as their ideas by saying something like, “I know you may see me as conservative in many areas of the business, but with all respect, I believe there are some good things ahead for us …”

My experience at Van Batenburg’s Garage (VBG) Inc., in Worcester, Mass., taught me that our employees were always a bit fearful of the innovations we [including husband, Craig] brought back after attending training events such as CARS, AAPEX, SEMA, ATE and VISION. We would always return feeling excited about bringing back new ideas for change. But we quickly found that involving everyone in these new ideas tempered the experience. They became accustomed to the routine, knowing that they would have the opportunity to add their own ideas to ours when we got back to work. Setting up a predictable format took the fear out of change.

If you are not holding regular shop meetings, put them on your to-do list for 2016. They’re invaluable for growing your business and challenging your employees. Once the routine is set, they fall into the pattern and “upside vs. downside” becomes routine. Of course, pizza can help build enthusiasm for these kinds of meetings, too. At VBG this process worked well and set the innovative tone we were looking for.

The experts and other shop owners I talked to all strongly agreed that to run a dynamic business ready to meet the challenges of the future, you need a plan to manage your conservative and innovative assets successfully. And yes, conservatism and innovation can work together to develop a successful shop.

It’s important to address the fact that sometimes a great new idea works like a charm. But there are times when innovation just doesn’t work out. If this becomes obvious, it’s your job as the shop owner to take the leadership role and acknowledge to the staff the new way is not the better way. Then, question them about what was learned and how all of you, as a team, can adjust the processes so that the desired results can be achieved.

If the consensus is that the idea should be scrapped entirely, then do something fun to give it a proper sendoff and move on. Remember that innovation can be like a steering wheel that you keep pointing in the right direction to guide your shop down the road of success. Happy motoring!

The experts weigh in

Interviewed several shop owners while writing this article. Every owner offered a rousing “yes” when asked if they use conservative thinking alongside innovative thinking to run their business. Here are some typical responses:

“We seem to be a people fond of hurling labels like conservative (or worse) at each other. Perhaps this makes deciding quicker than first evaluating the issue before us. Although no one would label me conservative in terms of social policy, when it comes to fiscal policy for our business, ‘Do we need that, how will we pay for that?’ is my mantra. Innovation is necessary to keep up with the changing needs of our customers and employees – over the years, we moved from pager to cellphone to texting as means of communication. Childcare benefits and flexible hours were necessary to adapt to the expectations of a new generation of technicians. But I am conservative enough to shun early adopter status when it comes to untried and often expensive new software and equipment. New ideas that can contribute long term to our triple bottom line (people, planet and profit) drive the success of our business. – Liz Daly, co-owner, Hawthorne Auto Clinic, Portland, Ore.

“After 30 years in business, our shop continues to be both conservative and innovative, adhering to the values that have made our business successful, while forging forward with exciting change.” – Diane Larson, owner, Larson’s Quality Automotive Service, Peabody, Mass.

“I am clearly both. I am conservative because I have many years of experience in knowing what works. I cannot ignore the past. But if I were only conservative, my shop would not move into the future. Our shop is perceived as progressive. For example, if our shop did not do training, go to annual events and attend classes that bring new ideas and introduce new technologies – i.e., hybrids, new fuel strategies, telematics, EVs and plug-ins – we would not evolve at the same pace the industry is evolving. Innovation has to take precedence over my conservative tendencies.” – Judy Zimmerman Walter, owner, Zimmerman’s Automotive, Mechanicsburg, Pa.