Innovative thinking is one of a few buzzwords touted by leadership development concepts. There’s no shortage of training programs available to help you think more innovatively. And these half-day or full-day workshops often do accomplish that goal. Many business books also make the same claim and can be equally as effective with sparking innovative thought.
However, innovation isn’t a switch that you can just turn on and off. You can’t go in and out of innovative thinking and become an innovative company. Innovation takes more than a thought or a skill; it also requires the right organizational culture and supporting systems. Unfortunately, many companies stifle the very innovation that they seek through five behaviors that require a change in their culture and systems to address.
Behavior # 1: Managers Don’t Recognize or Reward Innovation
Actions speak a lot louder than words, especially when it comes to focusing employee’s actions. If all you recognize is hard productivity metrics, then the work that generates those results is all the employee will focus on. They won’t set aside the time necessary to engage in innovating thinking, because that would reduce the productivity metrics on which their performance will be measured and their rewards will be determined.
If you want your employees to spend time reflecting on new ways to operate, new solutions to problems, or new markets or uses for existing products or services then the time you can’t simultaneously penalize them for doing so.
Behavior # 2: Information Is Not Shared
Employees cannot solve problems that they don’t know exist. While there may be some information that must be kept confidential, managers tend to withhold more information from their employees than is necessary.
This is often the result of fear and mistrust. Managers and leaders don’t trust the employees to use the information wisely. They fear that the information will be leaked or used against them in some other way. If that fear is legitimate, based on recent experiences, then there is a deeper issue that must be addressed.
In addition, a healthy company should have a culture of transparency that enables information to flow, putting employees in a better position to connect the dots between seemingly unrelated concepts, identify subtle relationships, and challenge their own thinking—all of which are necessary for innovation to occur.
Behavior # 3: Networking Is Not Supported
Great ideas often come from exposure to other modes of thinking or operating. One way that employees are exposed to these alternative approaches is through networking with other employees outside of their department and with other professionals in similar or complimentary businesses. Far from being a waste of time or distraction, supporting networking could be one of the most important things you do to spark innovation within your company. The best ideas for you company may not reside within your own industry.
Behavior # 4: Continuing Education Is Not Supported
It’s important that employees are encouraged to stay up-to-date on developments in their industry. It’s equally as important to encourage employees to read more widely and to develop a broader array of skills.
Encourage employees to take dance, painting, drawing or some other creative outlet. Encourage employees to take classes in an unrelated discipline to break out of a set way of thinking. Make it a personal development goal for them and them reward them for obtaining that goal.
Behavior # 5: Ideas Are Squashed Too Soon
Innovative ideas, by their nature, involve risk. There can be a tendency to not want to upset the status quo—especially if business is going well. Therefore, new ideas are tabled for what seems like very rationale reasons. For example, managers conclude that customers wouldn’t be interested in the product; that they are well-served by the existing products. However, they never actually survey customers or take other steps to determine interest.
To their surprise, a new start-up comes out with the same idea a year or two later (thanks to angel investors believing in your now ex-employee) and the product sweeps the market. If you want innovation, you will need to take risk and accept some level of failure without penalizing employees for that failure. Not all ideas will work.
Unlock Innovation on Your Team
Innovation takes more than skill; it also requires the right culture and systems. If you really want innovation to excel in your company:
- Challenge your rewards and metrics.
- Examine the goals you set and the performance reviews that you complete.
- Share information freely and promote transparency.
- Foster networking within and outside of your company.
- Encourage continuing education that is both industry-focused and general knowledge and skills-focused.
- Don’t squash innovative ideas; encourage further exploration in a responsible fashion.
- Make sure your daily actions are aligned with those of truly innovative company.