…you might want to talk to Ken Tencer.

A few years ago, I read and reviewed a book entitled The 90% Rule: What’s Your Next Big Opportunity? by co-authors and business partners Ken Tencer and John Paulo Cardoso of the branding and innovation firm Spyder Works.

I recently touched base with Ken to ask him about his latest book, Cause a Disturbance, a bestseller again co-written with Cardoso. Like their previous book, this one’s chock full of practical advice for entrepreneurs and small-business owners on innovation.

For people who may not have read your first book or who may have forgotten, refresh our collective memory: What is “the 90% rule,” and why does it matter?

The 90% rule is a philosophy, not a formula. It’s founded in my entrepreneurial experience, which has taught me to celebrate what I’m doing well in my business—the 90%—but to never let that success lead to complacency. There’s always something we can be doing better. We must continuously be searching and asking ourselves what the next 10% is: the new, improved and better products, services and processes to engage and delight our customers. Today, this is more important than ever. Consumers have shorter attention spans, and they expect more, more often. If you don’t continue to engage them, your competitors will quite happily do so for you.

In your latest book, you talk about the importance of staying innovative as a business owner. If I want my business to be more innovative than it is, what do I do, where do I start, and how long before I see a return on my efforts?

Start by turning your regular sales and marketing meeting into a business development meeting by including innovation on every agenda. Think big, think different, and think customer. Don’t limit yourself.

Ask all team members to bring in new ideas—exciting things they see happening both in your market space as well as in other industries. Encourage everyone to attend business conferences, seminars, workshops and peer groups, and to listen more closely—and more often—to customers in order to increase idea flow and generation. This will keep new ideas and opportunities on the front burner every week, rather than relegate them to the old once-a-year corporate retreat.

Then, identify the ideas that your team believes have merit and assign each project a leader or, as I prefer to call it, an opportunity champion. Have them approach the opportunity with the same rigor you would any traditional project: Present status reports, and solicit input from the group. This helps you keep track of ideas and live projects, and also builds a more engaged team. There’s nothing quite as motivating as involvement and feedback to let people know that their voices are being heard and their ideas implemented.

And don’t be afraid to bring in some of your customers for a show and tell. Make them a part of your team. Customers are the people who buy what you sell. Your success ultimately depends on solving their problems, challenges and needs.

Let’s talk about cash flow, because it’s a major concern for small-business owners. Why is process innovation better than the good old cost-cutting method of boosting cash flow?

When it comes to cash flow, particularly cost savings, it’s important to understand the difference between process innovation and the good old “slash and burn” method of boosting cash flow. In every organization, processes have a significant impact on costs: purchasing, inventories, reworking, downtime, lead-time, material travel time, delivery time, wasted time and so on. All these processes add costs, which means they provide a wealth of opportunities for hefty savings. When you come up with new ways of improving throughput or order processing, or reducing wait-times and delivery times, it’s found money.

Of course, costs must be cut, but the real goal should be to cut costs while driving growth. It can be done. For example, a hotel I studied had surveyed their business guests to find ways to better engage these lucrative, repeat travelers. They found that business travelers didn’t like decorative pillows and bedspreads … too much excess to peel away! The solution was to lose all the expensive excess decorative bedding and replace it with simple, clean white bedding and fewer pillows. The result? The lower bedding costs and quicker maid service led to greater guest satisfaction, along with increased repeat and referral business.

How do you respond to small-business owners who tell you, “I simply don’t have the time or money to innovate”?

The goal of innovation is to keep things fresh in your business, so your customers have reasons to keep coming back. How can you not have the time or money for that?

The importance of innovation is rooted in an ongoing debate between marketing and sales as to which one drives growth more. But I say, it’s no contest. It’s actually innovation—innovation drives what you bring to market, which, in turn, drives sales.

Think about it: Customers are central to every business and every business model. Keeping them engaged with “new, better and exciting” is paramount; therefore, bringing “new, better and exciting” to market is imperative. This is the essence of innovation. If you’re marketing and selling the “same old, same old,” you cannot sustain growth.

It’s like changing the oil in your car regularly. You wouldn’t change the oil in your car just once a year—the engine would sputter, seize up and die. So why leave innovation and improvements—however small they might be—to an annual schedule, planned retreats or sporadic brainstorming? Tune up your innovation engine regularly, and keep it running. Ignore it, and your business engine will begin to sputter.

Why do you think the entrepreneurial spirit, rooted in discovery and innovation, tends to dissipate as companies grow, and what can someone running a small but growing company do to maintain that founding spirit?

We simply cannot allow the front-burner issues that challenge every company to turn us into status quo thinkers. It’s a fight to stay fresh. But it can be easier than you think.

During a recent presentation in New York City, I was asked, “What tools do I need to be an innovator? To stay innovative?” My answer was simple and for many, surprising: “Your eyes and ears.” Opportunities are all around us. When we take the time to notice them, they can stimulate more creative thoughts within each of us.

I really should have added “feet,” because the day before, I had walked 40 Manhattan blocks looking for interesting and outrageous inputs to spur my own creative thinking. A billboard for the A&E TV show Storage Wars caught my eye. It’s a great example of how the simple matching of an idea that reflects people’s desires becomes a commercial innovation. The show is successful because it features modern-day treasure hunters competing to acquire abandoned storage lockers that might contain hidden bounty, at a time when millions find themselves in tough economic circumstances. The combination of hope, fun, triumph and even disappointment is downright intoxicating.

The point is this: Whether you’re a product developer, retailer, manufacturer or service provider, you, too, can uncover the little discoveries and everyday surprises that engage today’s consumers, who are always looking for something new, different, better and fun. All you have to do is get out more.

Lots of books have been written about innovation. What’s the one thing you want readers to take away from this book that they can’t find anywhere else?

This book is written from a pragmatic, entrepreneurial perspective. It demystifies innovation and demonstrates that it is powerful, achievable and critically important to the success of your business. Most important, it does so in a way that can be embraced by any company, even the solopreneur working from their kitchen table.

You can connect with Ken Tencer on LinkedIn and follow him on Twitter.

Republished from my OPEN column.