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.