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Are your teams stuck in the old ways? What can you, as a leader, do to encourage innovation in the workplace?
Contrary to popular misconception, innovation doesn’t require special talents or genius. Everyone on your team has the potential to bring innovative ideas to the table. You, as a leader, just have to create the necessary conditions to make it happen.
In this article, we’ll look at a few innovation strategies you can use to spark innovation in the workplace.
How Innovations Happen
According to David Epstein, the author of Range, innovations flourish in unstructured and unconstrained environments that allow for playful thinking. When professionals loosen up and temporarily abandon the need to accomplish anything serious, they often make wild breakthroughs that would never have normally been discovered. By freeing themselves from the constraints of serious work, they’re more likely to explore the uncharted territory. Obviously, you need rules and direction to get most work done, but a healthy amount of playful thinking and curiosity can be incredibly valuable for triggering innovation in the workplace.
For example, Nobel-winning physicist Andre Geim used to schedule “Friday night experiments”—time dedicated to fooling around in the lab with whatever interests him, regardless if he thinks it’ll amount to anything. One Friday night, he unexpectedly discovered that the water in a frog’s body was magnetic enough to levitate a frog in midair. On another, he found out that Scotch tape was able to strip off extremely thin layers of graphite, directly leading him to discover how to isolate graphene, a nanomaterial that’s one atom thick and two hundred times stronger than steel—which won him the Nobel.
Create a Sense of Psychological Safety
Innovative ideas go unexpressed when workplaces don’t try to cultivate a sense of psychological safety—people fear the negative consequences of being wrong, so they hesitate to speak up. In such a culture, old ways of doing things go unquestioned because people are stigmatized for challenging them. When this dynamic sets in, the workplace can become wedded to old ideas and processes that clearly aren’t working anymore, while new, innovative ideas are stifled and ignored—leading the entire organization to suffer as a result.
To encourage innovation in the workplace, leaders should communicate that it’s okay to be wrong. Even better, they can openly share professional critiques that show their past failures. When leaders are open about their own shortcomings and how they are working to do better, it provides a powerful example of humility that gives employees the psychological safety to express their ideas without the fear of judgment.
Provide People With Autonomy
In addition to creating a culture where people are comfortable expressing their ideas, leaders should give people autonomy. When people feel they have ownership of their work, their creativity blossoms.
For example, Ed Catmull (president of Pixar) owes much of the company’s success to its autonomous work culture. To encourage innovation in the workplace, Catmull uses a series of routine meetings and activities through which artists can develop their projects and allows creators to choose their own projects. When giving feedback, he rarely makes any creative decisions. He says that the creators know their projects better than he does and that his suggestions would likely only be followed because he’s in a position of power, not because it’s the best creative choice for the project.
Catmull’s process allows creative teams to maintain control of their projects while accessing the collective intellect of the company as a whole to improve the product and guide innovation.
TITLE: The Culture Code
AUTHOR: Daniel Coyle
As mentioned, innovations tend to happen when people are able to think freely and express their ideas without the fear of judgment. Once you establish such a culture, the next step is to establish a streamlined process to generate and evaluate a large number of innovative ideas. To this end, assemble a diverse team of employees from across different departments and from different levels of your business to brainstorm and discuss possibilities. Further, consider including people from outside your business to help stimulate innovative ideas.
You can use one of the following objectives to encourage innovation in the workplace:
- Serve unmet market needs
- Create new products or services
- Disrupt an existing market
- Create a new market
In addition, asking “what if” questions will help you to explore potential possibilities and provoke new ideas. To begin your brainstorming session, consider how you can:
- Use your existing resources and infrastructure to expand or transform your business model.
- Add more value to your existing product and service offerings.
- Focus more specifically on your customers’ wants and needs.
- Create new revenue streams and pricing structures, or examine how you can cut costs.
TITLE: Business Model Generation
AUTHOR: Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur
Balancing Growth With Innovation
Maintaining innovation in the workplace becomes increasingly harder as a company grows. This is because bigger companies need structure, and structure is the antidote to creative thinking.
According to Safi Bahcall, the author of Loonshots, it’s possible to balance growth with continued innovation. The key, he says, is to balance stake with rank. He says that these are the two motivating forces in any organization and that they are in constant competition with each other.
In a small, new, innovative business, everyone has a high stake in the organization’s success, and their rank relative to each other is not that important as compared to their stake in the business’s success or failure. Once the business is established and turning a consistent profit, rank (which comes with promotions, job titles, better salary and benefits, and so on) becomes more important.
Therefore, the key to keeping an organization innovative as it grows is managing the relationship between stake and rank. He identifies four key factors that go into this balance:
1) Salary step-up: How much more money you earn for a promotion. The more money conferred by higher rank, the more incentive you have to engage in politics rather than innovation.
2) Span of control: How many direct reports each manager has (the lower this number, the more managers there are relative to the size of the organization). The more managerial positions exist (the smaller the span), the greater your incentive to work your way up the ladder rather than focusing on innovation or quality.
3) Equity fraction: How much your pay is tied to the quality of your work, how much the quality of your work affects the overall success of the company, and how much that overall success is reflected in your compensation. The less equity you have in the company, the less incentive you have to innovate and the more incentive you have to politic your way into better compensation.
4) Organizational fitness: A parameter that measures how well the company matches workers’ skills to projects and how important politicking is at the company. High fitness means that the company assigns workers to projects they are skilled at and places little importance on politics. Low fitness means companies give workers projects they are ill-equipped to handle and allow politics to dominate the workplace. In a low-fitness organization, you have little incentive to do excellent work or to focus on innovation.
Innovative companies regularly introduce new products/services and revise their processes to affect positive changes in their business. From shifts in the working environment to cross-departmental collaboration, there are many ways to encourage innovation in the workplace.
If you enjoyed our article on how to encourage innovation in the workplace, check out the following suggestions for further reading:
Tired of competing head-to-head with other companies? Do you feel like your strategy differs little from the competition surrounding you? W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne suggest that the answer to competitive problems is to create a blue ocean: a brand-new market for an innovative idea, allowing your company to avoid competing with rivals—because it has no direct rivals.
In Blue Ocean Strategy, Kim and Mauborgne discuss how you can create such a market by focusing on your product’s characteristics that customers really care about while discarding the characteristics they don’t. This creates a new product offering that doesn’t currently exist, in a space without direct competitors.
When Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios, started his career, he had one goal: Create films using computer-generated animation. Despite a multitude of challenges, Catmull worked tirelessly to advance the technology of computer animation and, eventually, co-founded Pixar to marry his love of animation with his expertise in computer technology.
Through the journey of Pixar’s creation, Catmull developed leadership strategies that fostered creativity in the workplace while ensuring that the company remained profitable and successful. In Creativity, Inc., Catmull breaks down the most important factors in building and sustaining a creative culture. From removing fear from failure and protecting new ideas, Catmull explains the ways Pixar’s creative culture allowed it to grow into the animation behemoth it is today.
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