We all tend to talk about innovation. It is almost obligatory to have this word in your dictionary today. People who don’t talk on changes and growth are often claimed to be reactive, passive, etc.
And still, after so many discussions on the topic of innovation, still many companies and leaders can’t explain what they really see as innovation.
When asked what innovation means for the 890 leaders in a Forbes survey has given 112 different or similar answers. And that is only at the surface of the innovation. If the leader can’t explain what innovation is in his or her mind then the followers or the company employees can’t innovate.
Most of the people, working in today’s companies are led by the vision of the leader when defining innovation in their minds. That is why it is important for the leader to create the right definition for innovation at the company department or team he or she leads.
I’ve had the same challenge back in 2017 when I joined a company operating in the medical industry. Attending my first meeting with the senior leadership team I heard how innovative ideas have to be implemented, just to become a witness of how these same people couldn’t explain what innovation is and what can really be seen as innovation for that company. Then I sat together with the team of HR professionals assigned to me and asked for how they define the innovation. I’ve heard about dozen of things they have done, but most of them looked as operative tasks with no impact on the status quo. There is where my journey to defining what innovation means began. Three years later I have a clear definition of what innovation means for my team and the company and more than 100 innovations from all sizes implemented only in the HR area.
To give purpose and direction, when seeking innovation I have gone through several steps. Here I’m offering them to you to help you build your team, department or company innovation mindset.
Analyze the environment
I have seen it more than 10 times in my life from senior leaders. They come from a different industry or company and start implementing or demanding innovations that have worked in their prior experience. Well, guess what – in most cases that leads to a dead end. Each company and industry has its specifics. Although the principles of innovation are universal, they have to be adapted to the environment specifics.
A short example: One perk that is often seen between white-collar employees are office massages. It is a great perk that you can use when you have 20+ minutes. Well, this perk is not applicable in a manufacturing environment where you have strict time for different operations and small breaks between 5 and 15 minutes. There is no flexibility in the production environment to use that perk, so if that was something innovative you have thought about, think again…
Analyze people understandings
Some industries demand different types of innovation and creativity and support even the wildest ideas of the employees. But when you work in a structured environment, with implemented demanding official standards, that limit you to work on everything, you will have to think about how to shape your creativity and decide which innovative ideas are possible to implement from the wide range of ideas you have generated. That standardized environment builds within time internal understanding and stoppers in people. When trying to change this, you will need to understand where people are standing in the line with your understanding of innovation and how much from that understanding and position you can change in reality.
Build a strong working definition
After the first two steps, you need to focus on building a sustainable, understandable and acceptable definition that can answer the environment specifics. People accept to change the status quo only if they see that there are not a lot of obstacles who can stop them. Even if you have the best intentions to change your team, department or company for good, if there is an obstacle, coming from external standard, owner or board of directors limitations, etc., rethink your strategy and definition for innovation.
Stick to what you have set as a definition
One thing that will help you a lot when you set up the understanding of innovation is to stick to the core definition you have set. If you often change the rules what innovation looks like in your company, department or team you will get two things – resistance from employees to create innovative things and unneeded pressure with no purpose. A clear point of view and position will help you to sustain innovative thinking and get growing results over time.
Divide to win
I have had a manager, years ago, who wanted more and more to be completed or implemented to say that there was a real innovation. That often led to frustration in me, seen many good things I have achieved, but thinking only what will really be enough for that person to make her feel happy. So, after a year of changing priorities about how innovation looked, I just switched teams, to understand that most of the things I have implemented in practice were highly appreciated as complete innovations. What I mean by that short story is that you will have to look at the change as innovation. Do not stick to the size of the change, but look at how this change impacts the environment. If you are the leader of the team, department or company, remember to encourage small actions as a part of a bigger plan for change and innovation.
Innovation is always a risky activity. There are 50 % for things to happen positively and 50% percent for things to not happen. If you focus only on what you are sure will work on 100% you don’t support innovation, but rearrange what you have in front of you. To have real innovation in the workplace you will need to help people to learn to take risks without any fear of negative consequences. Risk is the core element that makes things change and innovations happen.
Prepare to reward and not to judge
A mistake I have seen leaders make is that instead of saying a simple BRAVO, or GOOD WORK they start analyzing what could have been done better to make a more impactful innovation. As I wrote above, when you understand that every risk, no matter the size, is an innovation opportunity you will need to build your positive attitude toward risks people take and acknowledge their actions and efforts. Judging the innovation and comparing it with other innovations is not applicable here. What may look like a small innovation from a company perspective may be a huge change in the environment a particular person works in.
Innovation is a topic these days leaders often talk on. What we need to learn is that innovation has different faces and if we want to see all of them we will need to build an innovation mindset in people. Building an innovation mindset is not so hard if the leader thinks positively and encourages people to take risks. Learning how to do that can change the company form fighting for innovation structure to a winning trough innovation organization.