Innovation is an essential part of any business’s success. Companies that remain static and do not encourage innovation among their employees run the risk of becoming limited and unable to compete. So, how can you inspire your own people to innovate and gain a competitive edge? Here are steps that work in organizations of all sizes and types.
For employees to take time away from their regular activities and focus on innovation, they need the support of management to deviate from the norm, form their own teams and ideate about their passions. Leaders from the C-suite down must actively reinforce innovation as a key corporate strategy by regularly communicating, participating in events and cultivating an environment where employees feel empowered to take risks without consequences. Executives who embrace the importance of employee innovation will touch every region, function and grade level.
Organizational leaders should communicate their commitment to innovation widely through internal channels (intranet sites, social media, all-hands meetings, company newsletters, etc.). At the same time, employees should feel comfortable communicating with their higher-ups as well as with one another. Everyone must listen to each other with equal regard. Solicit candid feedback from employees through surveys and polls – what is and isn’t working? Where do employees need more innovation support?
It’s equally important to provide employees with the necessary channels (an online collaboration hub, for example) to exchange thoughts with leaders and recruit other colleagues to cross-pollinate ideas. In such environments, employee innovators can discuss challenges, brainstorm about their ventures and share best practices, making them better able to discover, co-develop and implement game-changing solutions that improve outcomes for customers, partners and the world. [Learn more about improving employee teamwork and communication within your team.]
You don’t need to be an engineer or researcher to be innovative. Some of the most impactful ideas can involve new business processes that create efficiencies and save money, a better way of communicating with customers that improves service, or a game-changing digital solution that disrupts the market. From executives to interns, great ideas can emerge from anyone inside an organization.
Build a culture that encourages respectful collaboration across all levels and departments. Innovation programs should no longer be the domain of certain departments, such as engineering, R&D or product development. Instead, organizations should encourage every employee to tap into their passions, nurture their inner entrepreneur, think outside their job function and co-develop their idea with a team that has a variety of disciplines.
Innovation can come from anywhere within a company, so be sure to create a company culture that encourages employee collaboration across all levels and departments. Company communications should be open to everyone at all levels to help spread innovative ideas.
As you break down silos and encourage employees from different departments to work together, keep in mind the importance of diversity and inclusion. Rarely do the best ideas arise when everyone on a team hails from the same background. Whether diversity means people of different races, gender identities, skill levels, ages, geographies or industries, or simply folks with different points of view, your employees have much more productive brainstorming sessions that lead to new ideas and solutions. And those conversations are more impactful when everyone feels included, heard and valued.
Create or designate spaces to encourage new ways of thinking. Provide areas where employees can get outside with their colleagues during the work day, or create spaces to help get employees’ creative juices flowing.
Making innovation a sport or game of sorts brings employees out of their self-assigned boxes. By creating friendly competitions that incentivize employees and teams for identifying and developing new ideas, you will attract more of your employees to the innovation party. Reward and recognize particularly innovative ideas with a monetary bonus, time off or public acknowledgment.
Another way to drive participation is to have employees comment or vote on their favorite ideas to get more people to contribute to the discussion. In addition, innovation events such as hackathons, challenges and demonstrations encourage innovators to bring their ideas to life outside of their typical work environment. For all this hard work, consider implementing an “innovator award” to generate excitement and interest among employees by rewarding them for implementing innovative processes or elevating ideas.
Startups are often viewed as nimbler and more progressive than their corporate counterparts when it comes to innovation. Therefore, mirror the startup mindset with your innovation programs.
Just like in a startup environment, employees should play the roles of founders, angel investors and mentors. Those with ideas they’d like to implement are the founders, while the angels are given virtual tokens or currency that they can use to “invest” in their favorite ideas. Throughout the program, mentors lend their advice and outside perspectives to the founders to help make their ideas better.
Innovation doesn’t stop when your employees go home for the day. It’s important to invest in coaching, employee professional development and mentorship opportunities across the organization as well as within the community. Encourage employees to attend workshops, lunch and learns, and networking events to meet other local innovators. They may even help introduce you to a new partner who can accelerate your innovation efforts and bring additional ideas to the table. After all, innovation does not happen in a vacuum. You need a supporting cast of not only your own employees, but also a host of partners – customers, startups, developers, government representatives, researchers and academics from local universities. When diversified expertise comes together from both internal and external players to collaborate – and co-innovate – you can create more valuable innovations and outcomes.
Innovation does not happen in a vacuum, so encourage your employees to attend workshops and other such events to spark ideas and make connections with other out-of-the-box thinkers.
Innovation is not a one-time effort. To make an entrepreneurial mindset an integral part of the organization, it’s important for executives and managers to consistently and frequently reinforce key messages about how to embed innovation into their daily practices. You can also ask them questions about how to solve current problems in the workplace. For example, if they could improve communications, workflow processes or other aspects of the workday, what would they be, and how would they do so?
Your people are the key to success as an organization. Invest in them. Listen to them. Cultivate them. Believe in them. And, by all means, inspire them to be innovative. By empowering employees with the time, ways and means to come up with new ideas, as well as the opportunity to collaborate with each other and fully develop their ideas, you are ensuring a legacy of innovation in your organization and long-term relevance in a rapidly changing digital age.
The mark of good innovation isn’t about how many ideas are developed. If there is high-quality communication between employees, a collaborative brainstorming session is fairly easy. Successful innovation is determined by how well you’ve executed your team’s collective ideas. To execute the idea best, combine your innovation with a solid plan and act on it accordingly. For actions to be effective, be sure to collaborate, plan and manage any risks involved. These are the best ways to get the most out of your idea.
There are two common forms of leadership that can lead to innovation in companies: top-down and bottom-up. Bottom-up leadership refers to facilitation by managers in lower and mid-level positions. Bottom-up leadership is generally seen as the best way to lead employees toward innovation; however, this is not always the case. Substantial innovation requires increased energy and capital, which can only come from executive navigation and leadership.
In top-down leadership, vision and innovation are driven through the chain of command. The best way to lead your employees to innovate is to make use of both approaches, as they each have their own benefits. Make sure the managers in charge of innovation are fit to lead the charge. [Learn more about testing for leadership skills.]
Do not mistake creativity for innovation and spend all of your time and resources on brainstorming ideas as opposed to acting on ones with potential.
Innovation can take time, so rushing through it is generally unwise. Some innovation managers may dash through essential steps to make the process move faster. However, this can be to the detriment of the overall project. While speed is valuable in today’s market, quality should take precedence. If your product does not match up to internal and market standards, it can lead to financial losses and damage to your company’s reputation. Instead of skipping steps in the innovation process, dedicate more resources to them and use your time as efficiently as possible. These combined strategies will naturally speed up the process.
While they can look similar, it is vital to understand the differences between creativity and innovation. Creativity is the ability to develop new ideas and change perspectives, while innovation is when ideas become actual products or services.
While innovation forms through creative ideas, not all ideas will become successful innovations. Companies often spend a great deal of time and resources on brainstorming ideas, leading to delays in implementing the ideas with true potential. The best way to avoid making this mistake is to focus your resources on developing two or three solid ideas as opposed to many average ones.
Additional reporting by Sean Peek.