As a leader, you’ve most likely been given the mandate to create a culture of innovation. Or perhaps, you’ve been given the high-pressure responsibility to overcome today’s new challenges and unearth new opportunities. Of course, in times of massive upheaval like today, this comes with an urgent deadline and incredible pressure to perform.
Unfortunately, most leaders in this high-stakes situation incline to tap into a specific set of people that they already deem innovative. Maybe it’s someone named Helena, with her purple highlights and funky glasses, bestowed with the great gift of imagination and creativity. Her days are filled with “aha” moments and brilliant insights. Or perhaps it’s a cross-functional team of those that work in the more creative departments like marketing and R&D.
While there is a lot of good intention around plucking out the people that are perceived as being the innovators to leverage their talents, this inclination to silo innovation to the select few sabotages your innovation efforts and damages employee engagement.
Think of it this way: Why would your organizations only want to tap the power of six or 14 people when they could tap the power of all 300, 3,000, or 300,000 employees? You aren’t paying your team to keep their heads down. You are paying them to help you grow and thrive as a business. If you don’t have that expectation, you’re missing countless opportunities.
Furthermore, as we’ve learned time and time again in business case studies, innovation often comes from the most unlikely places. Innovating and adapting isn’t about implementing the latest and greatest process or initiative; it’s about people; all the people inside your organization.
In organizations, when teams or a select few are given special powers and responsibilities, the rest of the organization suffers a blow. The decision-makers tell the unanointed that they don’t have a voice in the organization’s growth or shifts. Nothing is more demotivating than feeling like your contributions aren’t needed or valued. It hurts on a personal level. It’s an unintended consequence of not focusing on human-centered innovation that leads to wasted opportunities, dollars, and productivity that can be felt across an organization. Those not part of the “innovation team” become disengaged, demotivated, and go silent.
Here are five tips for fostering a culture where innovation is everybody’s business so you can drive innovation, productivity, and profits.
1. Democratize Innovation
Take responsibility for innovation out of the hands of the select few and place it into everyone’s hands. Encourage them to innovate with the work they have right in front of them. Set a culture that fosters and develops innovation skills in all team members.
In my 25 years of work and research around developing the Innovation Quotient Edge (IQE) assessment, I discovered being innovative is universal. We are all capable of it. However, how we innovate is unique to each of us. After delving into the neuroscience and behavioral psychology, my research revealed that there are nine triggers or styles of innovation. Two of those styles are our power triggers for each of us – our wellspring of natural innovation strengths. We also have one dormant style – how we innovate the least. What matters most here is that everyone has the science and style of innovation in their brains – it’s hardwired into all of us. That means everyone can innovate if given permission and opportunity.
2. Make Leadership Enablers of Innovation, Not Doers
The question I often get from clients is, “if everyone is innovative, who is accountable for making sure it happens?” It’s a great question. It’s been my experience that every organization needs a leader or leadership team to ensure their people’s talent and development are happening. However, here’s the fundamental distinction. That leader or leadership team must see themselves and act as enablers of innovation, not doers of innovation. To successfully grow that skill across the organization, they must redefine their roles to support, guide, and provide resources. When leaders become enablers, the entire organization’s ability to innovate rises; when leaders try to control innovation, the organization’s ability to innovate falters.
3. Recognize the Diversity of Thinking Inside Your Four Walls
Several recent studies show that teams that have and leverage diverse thinking are smarter. Diversity in thought leads to more inquiry, challenging one another, and different perspectives. This leads to more wholly thought out work output. Interacting with people unlike you forces you out of your bubble, challenges your biases, and helps you fill the holes in your thinking. All you have to do is be open to it. This is why ideas that come from birds of a feather tend to die, but those that come from diverse thinking thrive.
Diversity in thinking can come from a partnership of two, a team, or across your organization. And it goes even deeper. Alison Reynolds from the UK’s Ashridge Business School and David Lewis, director of London Business School’s Senior Executive Program, ran a series of studies to understand better how diversity impacted a team’s performance, particularly their ability to be innovative and productive.
Their findings were fascinating. It turns out, while race, gender, and age are essential in creating diversity in a company, they did not impact the team’s ability to be innovative and productive. In discovering this, it begged the question of what did. Teams with cognitive diversity performed smarter and stronger. Cognitive diversity is defined as “differences in perspective or information processing styles. It is not predicted by factors such as gender, ethnicity, or age,” although one could argue that those factors lead to different thinking styles purely because those individuals come from other vantage points and experience. The point is to dig deeper, look beyond the surface, and tap into the cognitive differences that bring powerful diversity.
4. Provide Recognition and Resources
When it comes to innovation, this is especially true because we ask our people to take risks, try new things, think, and act differently. That comes with a healthy dose of fear. Fear of not succeeding, fear of being wrong, fear of looking stupid, etc. It’s essential that leaders first help everyone on their teams identify with their innovation styles and then provide the resources to unlock innovation daily. The reality is many of your people don’t identify themselves as innovative because somewhere along the way, they bought into the myth above that innovation is for the select few, or they don’t have the skills and tools needed to make innovation actionable. It’s important to remember that innovation, while an innate talent we all possess, still requires intentional practice.
5. Create a Complete Feedback Loop
Over the years, I’ve come to one crucial truth about humans. The truth is this: people don’t need to feel right; they need to feel valued and heard.
If you want to build a culture of innovation, driven by high engagement across your organization, it’s essential to build complete feedback loops that not only gather ideas but also communicate back what happened to those ideas. All too often, organizations put their efforts in gathering ideas for them to only go into the black hole. Leadership then decides direction without communicating appreciation or reasoning.
Your employees, the ones you asked to be thoughtful and spend time giving you solutions, feel unheard, and undervalued. That leads to massive frustration, lower engagement, and minimal desire to innovate moving forward. The fix, however, is quite simple. Spend just as much time communicating how and why on the back end as you do gathering on the front end. I have a client that tasked a team of people with filtering thorough ideas and going back to each person who submitted to share with them — first appreciation, and second a reason for why their vision did or didn’t get moved forward.
To summarize, building a culture of innovation isn’t about siloing responsibility, it’s about tapping into the talent all across your organization. When innovation is everybody’s business, the individual, the team, and the organization win.