Monday, June 27, 2016

How Leaders can Ignite Innovation

An executive at a company I work with recently told me:
“We have very creative employees who want to be innovative but find many obstacles created by the cultural opposition to it. We have to find a way to hold a mirror up to leaders so they can recognize the issue and then give them tools to overcome or at least neutralize the cultural barriers.”

He’s so right! We spend a lot of time training and encouraging employees at all levels how to be more creative and innovation. They leave our programs all fired up ready to change the world, then go back to a workplace that crushes their innovative ideas and enthusiasm. It’s usually the organization’s leaders, with good intentions that unknowingly putting up barriers to innovation.

According to research from creativity researcher Goran Ekvall, leaders who seek innovation but are unsure how to make it happen can easily undermine innovation goals. In fact, leadership behavior contributes from 20% to 67% of the climate for creativity in organizations (from CCL whitepaper “Innovation, How Leadership Makes the Difference”).

Becoming a leader that drives innovation doesn’t always require learning new skills – it often means stopping innovative-killing behaviors or practices.

Here are 10 things a leader can do to create an environment where employees are encouraged to be innovative:
1. Be a connector. Facilitate constructive cooperation (not competition!) between groups working on similar opportunities).  

2. Allow employees time to innovate. Engineering organizations are notorious for making sure 100% of their engineer’s time is billed to a program. Leaders need to give employees a few hours a week to experiment, work on projects that are outside of their jobs, to read, or to solve problems. Google is well known for the practice of allowing their employees to spend 20% of their time on things not related to their immediate jobs or projects.
3. Encourage your employee to hang out with “PNLUs” (people not like you). People that are different bring a different perspective and fresh ideas. Some teams invite PNLUs to be a part of their project teams.

4. Replace “yeah but” with “what if”. Instead of saying, “It won’t work,” or, “We already tried that,” say “Well, up until now it hasn’t worked,” or, “What if…?”
5. Set a realistic expectation for innovation success. Innovative ideas, by their very nature, probably won’t be readily accepted or they will fail. What’s a good batting average for innovation? Some would say around 200, or one out of five ideas. Don’t let your employees get frustrated about the four rejections – instead, reward the effort and encourage them to come back swinging until they get a hit.

6. Take an Edison approach to “failure”:  “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.”
7. Provide as much autonomy and ownership for jobs, projects, or tasks. According to Daniel Pink, employees are motivated the most by autonomy – the freedom to do things their own way. The challenge for many managers to allow employees to do things differently than they would do them, as long as they are getting good results. Who knows, they may come up with a better way!

8. Provide training. Innovation is not something a person is born with (DNA) – innovation can be learned. Provide training in how to be more innovative.
9. Allow your employees to attend conferences and networking events. Again, in order to get them exposed to PNLUs and new ideas.

10. Encourage employees to observe their customers or users. This is central to the concept of “design thinking,” pioneered by the innovative design company IDEO. This isn’t about reading market research reports or user surveys – it’s about actually going out and observing the users of whatever it is you make or provide.


Unknown said...

Hi Dan,

I appreciate the insight. One other quick to-do I would offer is to ask the employee about their training and take an interest in what they have to say. Then, ask them how are they going to use it. These questions let the employee know that the training is supported by you and kind of puts you in their corner to help overcome some of the barriers created by culture.

I follow your blog, and thank you for your continual insight!

Joe Croarkin

Unknown said...

Hi Dan,

Thanks for sharing your blog with us. I think this topic is very critical to discuss as the culture of a company can crush new thoughts.

One of the actions I would suggest is to make time to speak with the employee and ask them about the training. Then I would ask them how they plan on using it to help the team. By taking an interest in the training and potential action, it helps the employee reaffirm the training knowing you are in their corner.

I look forward, as always, to your future blogs.

Kind regards,
Joe Croarkin

Dan McCarthy said...

Joe -
Thanks for the comments and following! And sorry for the slow publishing... all of my blog comments were in my spam folder.