A Guide to Fostering Innovation

If you are a leader tasked with delivering innovation, your job is to guide your team or organization to discover and develop new ideas in order to deliver value to clients and customers. This note serves to remind you of some key elements you can put in place as you and your team prepare to do amazing things in the days ahead.

1. Create A Healthy Environment

Foster a culture of empathy, mutual respect, and collaboration. Lead by relating to people as individuals, not just employees. This requires more effort than treating them as contracted employees earning salaries or commissions, but it creates important connections, to varying degrees.

Two things happen when you do this:

  1. The connection you create leads to better communication, and understanding of roles and expectations.
  2. You set a model for communication and interaction among the team, the trust and mutual respect spread across the team creating a web of engagement and goodwill.

Remember, an idea may come from one person, but the resulting innovation is usually due to teamwork.

2. Welcome All Ideas, from Everyone

First, appreciate ideas for their own sake. It’s a good sign. Why? It tells you people are thinking, it tells you that they are invested in accomplishing results. Now ideas may be great, good, bad, or even stupid but that’s of secondary importance. Ideas are dynamic.

You can influence the quality of ideas showing up within the team by taking certain measures. We will see some of those below. Again, bad ideas in one context can become great ones in another. Ask everyone to pitch in, not just as an assignment but as a habit. 

3. Plant Idea Seeds

You do this by cultivating a culture and work environment where learning is centerstage, where it is celebrated. This is how to shape the ideas coming from your team. Support professional learning opportunities as well as non-work-related learning experiences.

You can employ courses, workshops, books, events, mentoring sessions. Do what you can to expose your people to the best learning experiences. You are seeding their minds with data and information that will birth new ideas and idea connections that will bring forth innovation.

4. Applaud Innovation–and Effort and Improvement

Recognize and reward innovation whether it be the huge, revenue-generating idea or a cost-saving one as simple as reducing power consumption or paper or toner usage. In the same vein, recognize and reward effort and risk-taking, too — within the borders of the organization’s objectives, ethical or regulatory requirements. As Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson said in The One Minute Manager, “Catch them doing something right.”

Conversely, avoid blaming and shaming, whether in private or in public. Where someone falls short, guide them to learn from such events, emphasize learning from such events. They are opportunities for both individual and organizational learning and growth.

5. Allow Change

Many leaders solicit ideas, even celebrate them, and yet prefer to maintain the status quo. The joy isn’t in the applause, people embrace the call to innovate because they want to see actual results and are frustrated when they don’t get the support they expect.

What do you do with the ideas people bring to you? How many ideas have you run with or investigated in the last year? Allow change. Take them as experiments, small bets with support and resources within the bounds of the organization’s budget. Who knows, they just might turn out to be the future of your organization.

Communication plays a huge role in innovation. 

It also involves listening. Communicate the team’s or organization’s vision and goals and be open to contributions from the un-usual suspects: seek out perspectives and opinions from the quietest people, from the rebels, from non-management staff.

Create a system for eliciting feedback on the organization’s most important goals and aspirations from the rank and file. A suggestion box might be useful, or an email address, or an app. Choose what works best for your organization.

So, remember to welcome all ideas, promote a learning culture and a healthy working environment, celebrate innovation and effort, and be willing to support the new ideas for innovation.

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