The world is changing around us every second, and as high performing individuals, teams, and organizations, we want and need to keep up.  Or better yet, we want to thrive, and be on the leading cusp of change.  As consultants, we want to bring new ideas and approaches to our customers.  As business operators, we want to empower our people to be creative and come up with these new ideas.  As a team member, we want to be in a learning environment where ideas and innovations are encouraged, shared, and even rewarded, and we are motivated. 

Many great leaders say that they never want to be the smartest person in the room, and I couldn’t possibly agree more. Among my proudest moments as a people leader are when a team member brings up an idea for how we can do things differently, and then we can actually follow through to make it happen.  So, how does an organization or a leader create or cultivate this culture of innovation and idea generation?  Beyond exemplifying the behaviors at the top level, here are a few actions and ideas to help make this more of a reality.

Change the definition of Innovation

Think big, think small, and everything in between.  Typically people hear the word innovation and they think it must be something big, bold and transformative.  Rather, the definition I suggest is really synonymous with change.  You can innovate both product and process. When you remove the “big and bold” stigma of innovation, you open the aperture for employees to suggest change – you make it attainable.  They may look at a task that is not necessarily valuable, or is taking longer than it should, and be more motivated to suggest a different, more “innovative” approach that serves them and the company.  Lots of little changes can add up to big gains.

Make Ideas Safe

Remove the fear of failure.  Create psychological safety.  Create an environment of trust and transparency, where your team can feel comfortable to share ideas without fear of criticism or negative perception.  An environment that respects early ideas and the need to iterate to make them great.  It’s a key tenet of embracing an agile and continuous delivery approach – fail fast, apply the learnings, and continue on.  There is significant research and evidence that creating psychological safety has to be a fundamental of any high functioning team or organization.  People have to know that it is ok to fail, and that you value their ideas highly.

Champion and sponsor the concept of Intrapreneurship

Supporting an “Intrapreneurship” mentality allows people to use their entrepreneurial spirit to better your company or project.  Intrapreneurs are typically motivated and proactive, and are looking for different and/or better ways to do things.  To support this, you have to have a good system in place that creates “just enough” boundaries, but allows flexibility for your team members to get things done in the way that they see is best. Ideally, this can be paired with creating an environment where your team members can connect in an easy way, to foster this at a group level as well.  

Create space to achieve goals

It’s critical for any organization to align itself around its key goals, and communicate those well for shared understanding and alignment.  In an innovation culture, leaders should articulate the desired outcomes, but not prescribe how to get there.  Rather, create space to let your teams and employees have input and creativity in how the outcomes are achieved.  The additional positive byproduct here is the increased sense of ownership of achieving the outcomes, when you’ve had a part in defining the path or approach.  My personal experience is this is the approach that high performing agile delivery teams employ – understand end user goals and outcomes, and let the team iterate through designs and options for how best to achieve them.

Take Action

If you really want continuous idea flow and innovation from your employees, leaders and organizations have to be willing to actually act on the innovative idea, and ideally with some speed.  The single biggest deterrent to suggesting new or different things is not believing that anything will ever happen with them.  Why spend the time if no one is interested or willing to change.  So, make sure that there is a mechanism in place to receive ideas and a way for people to know that these ideas are actually being implemented.

Reward your team

This can come in many forms depending on the organization.  But at the core, people need to feel that there is benefit from demonstrating innovative behavior or suggesting and implementing new ideas.  In my personal career, I’ve seen rewards in forms such as: 

  • Budgeting time for innovation (the reward is in the freedom for how they spend time vs. focused on typical work or billable hours) 
  • Incentive compensation – bonuses or raises associated with the innovative ideas or actions 
  • Verbal “praise” or highlights of the innovation in whatever medium your organization uses

So what now?  

If you want more of an ideas and innovation culture for your team or organization, your call to action is to do some of these tangible things to begin shaping that reality.  I promise, your people will thank you (and likely, so will your growth strategy):

  • As a leader or as a leadership team, be introspective and identify barriers to this concept in your organization.  Then, make a commitment to start removing them.
  • Most of us are in the 2021 budgeting cycle.  Now is the time to look at your budget and set aside some additional funds in the right place (be that Learning, People, Technology, Operations, or Investment) to support the commitment to increased employee time for innovation and your ability to implement some of the ideas.
  • Plan and launch an innovation challenge, like a hack-a-thon, but more like crowd-sourcing for ideas.  “Spare” time is sparse these days for many, so maybe you start by gauging participant interest.  Maybe people will really be excited by the concept!
  • Be vulnerable as a leader.  You have to demonstrate the behavior, so others will see it and act.  Engage with your team, understand what they want and value.  Leaders create an environment where your team wants to innovate and grow.