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Foster Innovation Through Fun, Play, and Risk-Taking

Friday, April 24, 2020
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There’s this idea that some workers are born innovators, while others just missed out on that magical innovator trait in the gene lottery. My work with companies has shown me that this is simply not true. The reality is that the organizations with a propensity for invention and reinvention tend to have innovation embedded as a core part of their DNA. It’s just how they work. Or, better yet, it’s how they play. And, innovation is not always what you expect it to be.

Innovators Aren’t Lone Wolves in Black Turtlenecks

Of course, we know the stereotypes of highly successful innovators. Entrepreneurs backed with swirling rumors of having a high jerk factor, thriving on a mere four hours of sleep a night, and hailed for their once-in-a-generation type of brilliance. But despite the few clear standouts splashed on the covers of Inc. and Time, this level of brilliance is rarely acheived alone.

Everyone Is Capable of Innovation

What we call innovation at work is similar to what a child would call playtime. Being curious, imagining a new possibility, trying a new approach to something. We all did these things as kids, but over time our proclivity to play can get leeched out of us by the structure and expectations of our lives and jobs.

This leeching brings up two important points. First, we all were built with a creative, playful, innovative part of us. Yes, you and I have the natural capacity to dream up the next big thing. Our challenge is to bring this amazing part of us back to the surface and begin to exercise it again.

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Leaders Create the Sandbox

Our research shows that the biggest barrier to innovation is not the limits of our minds—it’s the barriers created by our leaders. For individuals and teams to feel empowered and encouraged to exercise their creative minds and break things that aren’t working, leaders need to create an environment where doing those things isn’t just permitted, it’s expected. This outcome is often referred to as psychological safety—a mindset and discipline of leadership that protects and rewards the practices that are required to achieve it.

Leaders who are great at this are known for modeling an innovation mindset and for creating a safe “sandbox” for innovation to occur. Some key modeling behaviors include staying curious longer and asking more questions, sharing their failures openly and framing them as learnings, and collaborating across organizational boundaries. To create the sandbox, they create a picture of where the team needs to head, allow that team enough autonomy and space to come up with their own approaches, and recognize and reward the approach of innovation even if it doesn’t yield a win every time.

Innovation Isn’t Always a Big Long-Term Project

Leaders also need to reckon with the reality that developing an innovation mindset is vastly different today given various factors: the speed of change, new technologies being available, and access to troves of valuable data. While innovation was once a managed process with envious budgets that resulted in large outcomes, today it is much more fluid and often a part of the lifeblood of an organization.

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Innovation Is a Team Sport

While some employees are more curious than others, innovation is a process. One employee may not always be as effective as the next person in devising a breakthrough idea, but they may be able to provide a tweak or an add-on thought that improves the idea or makes it palatable for rollout. Forget the notion of a focus group of one; today, successful organizations breed innovation through collaboration.

Drawing an Innovation Blueprint

To create an innovative DNA in your company, you should:

  • Foster an environment of psychological safety where employees feel that they can fail and not be afraid to do so. When you have people who are encouraged to collaborate and feel that their ideas will be heard, they will rise to the occasion.
  • Be willing to take risks. According to A.G. Lafley, former chief executive officer of Procter & Gamble, failed risks should be seen as gifts. He advises that it is important to, “ . . . get past the disappointment and the blame and really understand what happened and why it happened. And then, more important, decide what you have learned and what you are going to do differently next time.”
  • Be fun and playful. We learn through play, and by approaching innovation with a playful attitude, your workers will feel more comfortable trying things. Create an environment where people will be curious and bring onboard a sense of playfulness that rewards employees for thinking innovatively. For example, Jeff Bezos asks job candidates about what they have invented.
  • Allow more flexibility and autonomy between groups and individuals. Diversity of thought and getting people together who think differently about things has been proven to generate optimal business results for organizations. People want to feel like their differences and uniqueness can be leveraged to help meet organizational goals. In an extreme example of this approach, Zappos created a culture of “holacracy,” a self-management business model where teams are replaced by concentric circles, managers become “lead links” who have little formal authority over their employees, and everyone in the company is empowered to make decisions.
  • Have L&D play a supporting role. Understand that while there is a key role that learning and development plays in this process, innovation shouldn’t only be a learning-led initiative. While L&D are the culture keepers, company leaders should be responsible for leading the charge on innovation.

If you’re looking for innovation, it’s time to embrace play, curiosity, and a little bit of crazy. Encouraging employees to be innovative not only serves to drive employee engagement and increase retention, but it ties back to an overall mission of seeking to make your people feel valued, engaged, empowered, and passionate in their role in the workplace.

About the Author

Larry Clark is managing director of global learning solutions at Harvard Business Publishing Corporate Learning. He leads the team of learning solutions managers around the globe who partner with clients to design and develop learning experiences unique to each organization’s needs. His background includes more than 25 years of experience in learning design. Previously he served as vice president of Comcast University’s Talent & Professional Development College, where he oversaw all leadership, high-potential and executive development, as well as learning and development for all enterprise functions across the organization. Prior to joining Comcast, Larry spent 12 years in a learning role with Microsoft, and began his career in the learning and talent profession working as a learning and management consultant for companies including Learning International and Zenger Miller.

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