If you’re anything like I was, you’ve read articles about the innovation greats in the business world with a whole lot of respect and perhaps a bit of jealousy. How is it that some companies seem to have innovation ingrained in their DNA, while the rest of us struggle to hire for and nurture innovative thinking in our own organizations?
If you want to stay ahead of the competition, you need to start making innovation a priority in your organization. In order to do that, you have to make innovation more than just a word, but a way of life. Start by infusing innovation in your vision—define how innovation will drive you and your team to achieve your vision. Then, inspire innovation. in your company culture by modeling the way and letting go of some of the control and consistency that you have perhaps become too comfortable with as a leader.
Helen Keller said, “The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.” Unfortunately, this is exactly how many companies are operating. Every company and organization have vision and mission statements, but they mean next to nothing if that vision isn’t being communicated and—more importantly—modeled every day.
Vision is important to innovation for the simple reason that anyone can brainstorm and come up with new ideas, and even get others on the team to work toward making them a reality. But, if the innovation does nothing to realistically move your organization in the direction you envision for its future, then why put the resources toward it at all? Furthermore, you cannot expect your employees to be able to develop innovations that drive you toward your vision if they do not have a clear idea of what that vision is, nor if they have not bought into the vision.
Your vision tells the story of your organization’s place in the world—why it exists and where you are going in the future. It creates the framework for a common goal that everyone in your organization should be working toward achieving. Making innovation a part of that vision will help infuse it in your company culture; however, it will not achieve improved innovation on its own. You must be able to encourage and nurture it in others and model the way yourself.
To stimulate innovation, you must inspire innovation in your company culture through influence, not authority. What I mean by this is you that you cannot tell your team to be innovative and suddenly make it true because you’re the boss and you have the authority to tell them what to do. You need to influence change by modeling the behaviors you want to see in your team and encouraging them to follow. Influence innovation by creating space for it in your team’s workday and encouraging collaboration.
The hackathon has gotten a lot of attention lately, both positive and negative. Though a somewhat controversial topic, the hackathon provides us with a clear example of what making space for innovation may look like, albeit on a somewhat dramatic scale.
You don’t have to host hackathons to inspire innovation on your team, but the takeaway from their popularity is that providing a space for innovation does get tangible results. If your operation is anything like the average organization, your team is likely working more than 40 hours per week just to keep up with their daily tasks and responsibilities. It’s difficult for even a naturally innovative employee to take time away from what they are expected to do—what their performance is being measured on—in order to try out new ideas, particularly if they’re not at all sure if that idea is going to work out.
The idea of the hackathon takes away some of that pressure to say, “Hey, we value innovation and recognize its importance for the business, so we’re going to invest resources in encouraging more of it.” It’s going beyond including “innovation” in your vision statement and it’s modeling the importance of innovation for your organization for your team.
Different organizations create space for innovation in different ways. Some take a project, problem, or opportunity focused approach. When the need for a unique solution to a problem or opportunity comes up, instead of always assigning it to the same manager or team, they open it up to the whole company, or at least a broader selection of the company. This allows those individuals who may not have otherwise heard about this new project the opportunity to apply their ideas, experiences, or perspectives to developing a solution in a totally unique way.
Creating space for innovation also helps you to encourage collaboration among your teams as well. Office cliques are damaging to your culture for many reasons, and innovation is one of those reasons. To inspire innovation on your team and infuse it in your company culture, you and your management team need to work on breaking down barriers of communication and encourage collaboration among diverse groups of employees.
Great leadership requires that you inspire people of different backgrounds, experiences, culture, ages, and perspectives to work together to solve problems and leverage new opportunities. There is no straight path or “right answer” in innovation. Diverse and collaborative teams help breakdown groupthink and ensure your organization is moving forward with the best possible alternative for the circumstance and your organization’s vision.
Leaders are finding the generational diversity on their teams increasingly difficult to manage. Ageism seems to dominate the discourse, as job seekers over the age of 40 find it increasingly difficult to land a job, while younger workers are saddled with the stigma of being serial underachievers.
The truth is that engaging in generational stereotyping is actually costing your business. The Impact of Aging and Age Diversity on Company Performance uses a simple cost-benefit model to analyze the overall impact of age diversity on productivity and company performance. Researchers found that the benefits of employing a generationally diverse workforce outweigh the costs of employing older workers. The benefits, in fact, are much stronger for industries that rely on innovation and creativity, compared to those that are more automated-focused.
The study also found that age diverse teams host a variety of values, perspectives, experiences, and ideas that positively impact an organization’s ability to solve problems in innovative ways. Multigenerational teams also show a greater immunity to the pitfalls of groupthink and allow for an exchange of skills and experiences. Veteran employees can help companies strengthen their leadership pipeline while younger employees provide training in more technical-based skills.
Companies that experience these benefits only do so when strong multigenerational leadership exists. You model the way when it comes to generational stereotyping, so your attitude toward older and/or younger members of your team have an impact on how your team treats and interacts with each other. Managing multiple generations is not an easy task for many leaders; focusing on what makes generations different divides teams and breaks down collaboration and communication. Lead your multigenerational team by finding common ground in shared values and encourage open, cross-generational communication through mentoring programs and collaborative work groups.
During one of our leadership development classes, our training facilitator asked us: What do you have to give up, as a leader, to have a totally empowered and accountable workforce?
This is kind of a scary question for many of us. As we discussed this idea as a group, the answers that you would expect came up: we would have to give up some of our control, expectations that things would get done exactly the way we wanted them to, we would have to coach rather than dictate, and we would have to be open to mistakes.
To me, all that was discussed can be distilled down to one simple statement: we have to let go of our egos.
If I want my team to feel totally empowered to innovate the business or processes within our operations, I need to let go of my ego. It’s my ego that tells me that my ideas or my ways of getting things done are the only right ways. It’s my ego that tells me that I can’t let my team make a mistake because that reflects badly on me to our clients. And it’s my ego that tells me I can do anything better than anyone on my team.
To be honest, that was a pretty difficult revelation for me. We all know what it takes to be a great leader, in theory. But applying that every day, when we’re in the thick of it with a hundred things to do and a million decisions to make, it becomes really easy to set those principles of great leadership aside and just push through. This one, simple question made me realize that leaving leadership in the realm of theory will not drive my business forward.
This mindset is so key to inspiring innovation in your organization. If your employees are bringing you innovative ideas and you are consistently turning them down because they’re too risky, contrary to what you’ve always believed, and/or not the way you would do it yourself, then guess what: Your employees will eventually stop bringing innovative ideas to you. They will stop thinking in innovative ways entirely and the really good ones will leave the company in search of an environment where innovation is nurtured.
This isn’t to say that you have to say yes to every idea that comes across your desk. And it certainly doesn’t mean that you have to be totally hands-off with your team and their projects to make innovation work. It does mean that you have to be open-minded enough to accept new ideas and then take the risk to give your people the permission to try out their ideas—even to fail at times when those ideas don’t work out.
What would you have to give up to have a totally empowered and accountable workforce?
This may be a little counterintuitive to what many leaders think of as an innovative culture, but it absolutely fits. In order to inspire innovation in your organization through influence, you must give your team the gift of measurement, recognition, and feedback.
Innovative people like to know that their work is having an impact. When an individual or team invests extra time and effort into trying out an innovation, they want to know that their efforts are having an impact and are recognized. Public recognition is usually best. Find a good time to publicly recognize those employees that are pioneering innovation in your organization. Recognize those who have brought forth innovations that created positive value, as well as those that failed but can teach the group a lesson. Be specific in both cases in recognizing the important contributions your team members are making to the organization to encourage more innovations in the future. Remember, what gets recognized gets repeated.
This is also the place where you come in to provide ongoing structure and boundaries around what your team is investing their time in. Though monitoring progress in innovation is quite a bit different from day-to-day responsibilities (Jerry answered this many customer service calls, Mary sold this many units, etc.), it is still your job as the leader to make the determination as to whether or not the innovation is a success or failure. If it is contributing to the vision of your organization or not.
You must be open, clear, and honest in your feedback. I’ve worked with managers who are so ambiguous in their feedback that their employees don’t know if they are doing well or not. Ambiguity neither inspires nor improves performance. Even when the feedback is not all good, it must be clear and direct so your employee understands what they need to do to improve.
You do need to walk a fine line with failure when you are providing feedback regarding innovation specifically. If you are punishing people for failures, they will stop bringing innovative ideas forward. However, when someone’s idea is clearly not working, you have to be prepared to make the potentially difficult decision to pull the plug on the project.
Continued education is critical to inspiring innovation at every level of your organization. Continued education inspires people with new ideas, encourages them to think more broadly and critically, and opens them up to new experiences and perspectives.
If you want to influence innovation in your team, try finding ways to invest in both their continued education and yours. You will be surprised how much you can learn as a leader from others who are just like you—working toward their goals and struggling with the same questions. By being open-minded about your personal development and that of your team members, you will develop an organization much better prepared to solve company challenges and seize new opportunities through innovation.