How To Drive Innovation
Leaders want more innovation in their cultures. To compete, they know they can’t play it safe – which requires employees to take chances and not be afraid to fail. Yet, most organizations subtly (or overtly) encourage safe behavior, by rewarding straightforward successes and punishing failures. Employees get the signal quickly that taking work risks is just too high a personal risk for their careers.
It’s no wonder that Gallup’s research shows that only 13% of employees are engaged at work. If we’re continuously told we need to be innovative and creative, yet we’re limited in our ability to do so, dissatisfaction and stagnation set in.
Time and workload play into this as well. In a recent survey by Accenture, more than 50% of respondents reported feeling too busy or too blocked at work to think up and propose new, innovative ideas. I see this frequently, where executives are so overwhelmed with trying to get though the work of the day – and evening – that there’s simply not any reserved energy left for strategic ideation.
But, of course, our organizations need exactly that to thrive in our complex and changing environment. How can leaders truly infuse strategic risk taking that leads to innovation? Here are considerations to get you started.
Set the example.
Leaders have enormous influence in setting the tone for how risk taking will be tolerated, and how failure will be managed. I know of one leader who kept a plaque on his wall of everyone who had tried and failed – spectacularly – in the pursuit of an audacious goal. Every executive saw the names when he or she interviewed for the job, and each time they came into the leader’s office. The tone was clear: we value risk taking and reward it.
Develop innovation-friendly policies.
Author Dan Pink made famous the idea of Fed Ex days, used by companies such as Atlassian. With this policy, employees can work on anything of their choosing for one day month. Google is known for its 20% time to work on any project an employee desires. And 3M has had its own 15% time for years, which led to the Post-It note, among other inventions.
If you can’t create a formal policy such as these, try to replicate the idea on a project level. For example, have a cross-functional project team tackle a key issue for 1-3 days in an off-site. With focused effort, it’s often surprising how much progress can be made.
By creating the space and time to innovate, you can protect creativity from getting pushed to the wayside in the onslaught of short-term priorities.
When new ideas are being formulated, they need to be communicated and celebrated. We often wait to see what happens before we make any announcements. In other words, we want to limit exposure to failure. The real learning is in the development phase as that’s where the risk taking happens.
Leaders should have a set time in meetings for updates on innovation, and to share what they see happening across the organization. This is also a good time to celebrate positive failure and to learn from it.
Try it out.
Leadership author Ron Ashkenas reminds leaders that innovative ideas don’t have to be implemented immediately: “Ask a team in a part of the company you want to grow to conduct a series of rapid-cycle experiments to test new ways of working.”
When innovation is rolled out as a cultural imperative, you can watch the eye rolls. It’s much more powerful, and real, to begin implementing innovation trials that are shared and communicated with others. Or, in the case of Fed Ex days, are a self-selected option.
Be realistic about your appetite for failure.
This is the most essential rule to promoting risk taking – you have to be honest about what you’re willing to accept or you’ll get widespread cynicism. If you say you want innovation, but continually imply that failure is something to be avoided and punished, people will never take a risk.
It’s vital to allow for some failure. Author of Taking Smart Risks, Doug Sundheim, uses the term smart failures. Smart failures are “the type of failures that should be congratulated. These are the thoughtful and well planned projects that for some reason didn’t work.” Sundheim goes so far as to say that, in order to encourage risk-taking, you should reward smart failures, just as you’d reward success.
Paradoxically, in order to have great success, you have to accept and honor failure. As leaders, our first hurdle to inspiring innovation in our organizations is to first change ourselves.
Kristi Hedges is a leadership coach, speaker and author of The Power of Presence: Unlock Your Potential to Influence and Engage Others. Find her at kristihedges.com and @kristihedges.
This post also appears on Forbes.com.
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