Innovation in the workplace poses a unique challenge: Growth requires your employees to take risks, yet chasing unproven ideas can often mean fundamentally risking your job.
While many companies find success confining innovation to specific departments or innovation labs, this can often limit the flow of ideas and constrain the development of new products.
When it comes to tackling innovation, leaders must carefully build a culture that tolerates change and provides the freedom to explore big ideas. To help you get started, check out the seven tips below.
7 Ways Leaders Can Inspire Innovation Across Teams
1) Find your tolerance for growth.
Let’s hit the obvious truth first: Not all companies are built for explosive growth.
While enterprise leaders (and employees) may envy the nimble, adaptable cultures of early stage companies, legacy structures and processes provide tremendous value for many corporations. Unfortunately, strict frameworks can end up stifling innovation rather than fostering it.
To combat this, leaders of all types need to fully understand their growth journey and what it takes to get there. To do so, it's helpful to have CEOs and boards collaborate to establish a tolerance for growth and create cadences for employees to work within.
Remember: The push for innovation should be tailored to the needs of each particular company and team, not on the performance of a competitor.
2) Craft the right story.
The case for innovation can be made from the C-suite, but employees will drive it forward -- and they’ll need a reason to create and chase new ideas.
Inspiring innovation requires a compelling story that resonates across every department in your company. That story starts with company values that reflect a dedication to innovation and real-world impact.
Effective storytelling means giving your managers and staff a big problem to solve, not simply pushing little innovation projects here and there. For example, GE Healthcare pushes the narrative that everything its people do and build is to make the world a healthier, better place. And this notion is reflected across all of their accounts, assets, and efforts:
Once you have a big idea or problem to fall in love with, your innovation projects can be productized. This larger structure offers a way to create strong leaders and gives managers context to approve and encourage new ideas.
3) Rethink your team structures.
Speaking of managers, they’re often the group most likely to derail any cultural shift -- particularly one that requires taking risks. While the C-suite might have a tolerance for risk, entrenched management and salespeople may have a much different comfort zone. To break through the management firewall, you need to either incentivize risk, or simply rethink your overall structure.
Nearly four years ago, my digital agency -- 352 Inc. -- radically altered our team structures and processes. In doing so, we built cross-functional web development teams (designers, developers, and strategists collaborating on a single client project to completion) and adopted a lean startup methodology across the company. While the process was key, we also eliminated most of our management hierarchy -- turning project managers into servant leaders.
This shift fully empowered our teams to communicate directly with clients, manage relationships, and build a solution that best fit the needs of the project. By removing the barriers to employee-owned innovation, we’ve seen higher quality work, happier clients, and more productive teams.
4) Measure employees on value-based metrics.
Unfortunately, you can’t expect employees to pursue innovation just because you’ve said it’s important to the business. For innovation to stick across the company, it needs to be a job requirement rather than a suggestion.
While your story should encourage employee buy-in, performance reviews should include a focus on innovation. Employees should be measured and rewarded for the risks they take -- even if they don’t necessarily pan out.
Once you have these metrics in place, you’ll need to provide a way for staff to truly pursue innovation. This leads me to my next point ...
5) Structure innovation time for maximum impact.
Just like finding your tolerance for growth, most companies will need to find a way to give employees structured time to focus on creating actual, working products.
At 352, we’ve embraced hackathons as a good way to create and validate new product ideas. During our hackathons, we encourage employees to build a functioning product with a marketing plan and launch strategy in just three days. Finished products are judged by industry leaders and their peers within the company for market viability and utility.
In the past two years, we’ve launched three of these products into their own businesses, rewarding employees with ownership in the ideas they build.
The lesson? While brainstorming and whiteboarding have their place in the innovation process, be sure that your teams actually have time to turn those ideas into a reality.
6) Look outside your own walls.
Even the most nimble organizations can suffer from red tape, compliance requirements, and legacy workflows. And while a large IT structure has obvious benefits, it can also constrain and slow innovation. Luckily, external innovation partners -- like startups and agencies -- can focus on a single problem and quickly develop a solution.
In 2014, an internal Cox Automotive startup group approached us to help build a web app that allowed anonymous negotiation for a new car purchase. Rather than struggling through internal development red tape, we rapidly built the product with cutting-edge, open-source technology.
Once we’d validated the product with actual end-users, we worked alongside their internal IT team to build compliance standards and infrastructure requirements. This flexibility to work outside the typical chain of command allowed the opportunity for the app to find product/market fit and grow with actual customers much quicker than an internal innovation team could achieve.
7) Celebrate and encourage learning.
The celebration of failure is in vogue throughout Silicon Valley, but that’s often shortsighted. It’s vital to be entrepreneurial, but innovators that come from more traditional industries can quickly fail themselves out of a job unless they focus on the lessons that failure brings.
A culture of learning fast, rather than failing fast, will ultimately drive sustainable innovation.
At the end of the day, inspiring a culture of change and innovation requires strong storytelling, employee empowerment, and a willingness to look outside your organization to find answers.
Innovation won’t happen overnight, but it will have long-term impact when managed well by visionary leaders.
What do you do to encourage innovation in the workplace? Share you thoughts in the comments below.
Originally published Jun 1, 2016 7:00:00 AM, updated July 28 2017