Everyone talks about the need to be more 'innovative', including leaders. When it comes down to the rubber hitting the road, employees and customers often experience a disconnect between what a leader says and how he or she acts when it comes to fostering innovation. If you are a leader, you may not even recognize how your fear and anxiety are getting in the way of supporting innovation.
Here are six ways you can get out of your own way to support innovation and innovative thinking in your organization.
Not all innovations are 'Netflix events'. Some of them are simply adapting a concept, tool or process that has worked in one industry in a different 'space'. Core innovations focused on the transformation of existing product or services can extend their shelf life with your client base. If innovations are turned inwardly to improve how effectively people work together in your organization, the payback can be dramatic in both efficiency and engagement.
We often assume that innovation is chaotic and ideas appear through some sort of divine intervention. Guess what? We can put systems in place to support and manage how we innovate. What is the advantage of that? Well, it means we don't have to put artificial 'management' controls in place. A system, by its definition, is clearly defined, repeatable, and measurable. When we have a system for innovation, we can monitor and address variation in the system so we have leaders develop trust. Where there is trust, there is less need for traditional controls (which tend to stifle innovation). (For an example of an innovation system, check out Innovation Engineering (link)).
To be truly innovative, you need to accept some level of risk. In order to manage and mitigate risk, seek to balance core innovation (those aimed at 'leveling up' existing products and services) with leap innovation (those seen as 'game changers' in your industry). Core innovations will generate revenues and efficiencies that will enable you to prove out your system and invest in leap innovations with less risk. A balanced portfolio would have 85% core and 15% leap.
Yes, you heard me correctly! How many dollars do we invest in training courses and programs for employees, only to have them come back with a swanky binder that sits on a shelf? What if we invested some of those funds to allow them to 'try and test' ideas they have for transforming our products, services and systems? What they learn through that process of experimentation (including failures!) will likely provide as much or more value than any investment in a one-day workshop.
As senior leaders, it is easy to take on the weight of the world. When things are going well, we jump in to support those who are swamped by high workloads. When things are not going well, we jump in the ditch and put in extra hours to try to turn things around. We feel like we have to have all of the answers. If you want innovation, you need to stop that endless cycle.
What you need to do instead is define what needs to be accomplished and why. Leave the 'how' to the people who are closest to the situation to determine. When workloads are high, set the mission that we need to find a way to complete the work without needing overtime because our people are burning out. When things are tough, maybe the mission is to find two new markets for our best-selling product because if we don't we will likely need to make staff cuts. With defined missions, we can engage the power of our teams to come up with ideas on how best to accomplish the mission. That takes the pressure off you and drive engagement in generating and executing solutions.
Consider how you react/respond to innovation today. Are you the chronic naysayer? Do you authorize everything without question? What drives your behaviour? Be honest with yourself. Often, we find ourselves reacting out of fear - fear of becoming irrelevant if others can develop solutions, fear of negative personal consequences if something goes 'wrong', etc. Where you can see yourself putting up roadblocks, identify what triggers that behaviour and try to interject an alternate response.
Ex. If your standard reaction to an employee's innovative idea is to say, "We tried that before and it didn't work", seek to replace that statement with "What have we learned since the last time we tried that so our chance of success is better?" You'll be surprised how much of a difference that minor change will make.
If you truly want to drive innovation in your organization, get out of your own way. I have faith in you.