The need for continuous and sustained innovation has never been greater for organizations, regardless of size, industry, market, or profit vs. non-profit status. As markets continue to grow more global, open, and competitive and customer expectations become more diverse and demanding, innovation is everyone's business.

Likewise, profitability and growth are becoming a challenge, and in many cases, costs have been cut to the bone as efficiencies are squeezed beyond the point of diminishing returns. In addition, many organizations are experiencing employee engagement and retention issues.  We’ve reached a point where we can no longer fix our broken selves by firefighting or employing models of the past.

Leaders are now recognizing the need for new approaches to solve the most challenging and costly organizational problems.  So, what role does leadership play in the innovation process? The short answer: a big role.

Unfortunately, research continues to highlight leadership as a top barrier to innovation. A 2014 study of Millennials by Deloitte reinforced both the importance of innovation, as well as citing “management attitude” as the biggest barrier to innovation.  From the report: “Organizations must foster innovative thinking. Millennials want to work for organizations that support innovation. In fact, 78 percent of Millennials are influenced by how innovative a company is when deciding if they want to work there, but most say their current employer does not greatly encourage them to think creatively.  They believe the biggest barrier to innovation is management attitude (63 percent).”

However, this actually represents a great opportunity to anyone in a leadership role who is genuinely interested in building their team’s innovation capabilities. So, as a leader, here are 10 steps your can take to foster everyday innovation.

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  1. Innovate with a purpose and drive collective focus on desired outcomes by collaboratively identifying areas where you need to generate a lot of good ideas and innovation. Targeting specific high-value opportunity areas and desired outcomes brings focus to idea-generation that will lead to a greater return on investment.
  2. Reframe problems and issues in the context of desired outcomes and encourage this from everyone.  Innovation is about creating, therefore, you want to focus on what you WANT (to create), rather than what you DON’T WANT.
  3. Add innovation skills to everyone’s development plans. Plans should include a variety of collaborative and experiential activities.
  4. Encourage diversity, in its broadest sense, at every opportunity. Strategically staff, partner and build into development plans, the connection to diverse perspectives (discipline, industry, experience, and culture).
  5. Practice and support making everyday connections (see Figure 1) to generate ideas and innovation around your high-value opportunities and desired outcomes. Don’t leave it to habit when connecting with sources to generate and inspire new ideas.
  6. Create physical and virtual “open spaces” where people can collaborate, share ideas, learn, and plan.  Use what you have, but try to make the collaboration space different.  Include whiteboards and anything that encourages collaboration.
  7. Establish an Ideas Management process. Don’t make it overly complicated. What’s most important is to have a process and supporting tools for people to capture, organize, and share their ideas so they can be expanded and refined. Good ideas can happen at any time, so being able to capture them in the moment is important. There are many free cloud-based apps, such as Evernote, that can be used for this purpose. This process should also include how ideas are reviewed and selected for implementation.
  8. Build innovation into your performance management process, including establishing innovation goals and providing innovation coaching and feedback.
  9. Develop an Innovation communication plan. The goal is to have everyone actively contributing toward innovation, so it is essential that everyone is aware of the progress and impact of innovation efforts, and encouraged and inspired to contribute. An effective communication plan should include formal and informal means for celebrating everyday innovation successes early and often, as well as learning and progress (including “failures” as part of the progress). This will help increase excitement, energy, and contribution toward everyday innovation.
  10. Serve as an innovation role model. Ask good questions and encourage questioning beyond habit or the obvious. Be a good listener. Recognize failure as part of the innovating process. Model resilient optimism that inspires curiosity and belief in the possibilities. From confidence to capability, be a people-builder.

Figure 1

Farmer-Butte Figure1

Taking these initial steps will not only help you benefit from the continuous generation of new ideas and innovation where you need them most, it will help you begin to build a culture of everyday innovation.  This will have a significant positive impact on productivity, engagement, retention, and business results.