How to Foster Innovative Thinking at Your Company
Innovation has a good reputation in the corporate world. It might mean something different to every executive you talk to, but surely everyone wants it. Innovative ideas, an innovative culture, a history of innovation — these are all intangible assets that any business leader would love to have.
Executives aren’t alone. Nearly all of today’s most sought-after employees want to be a part of a company that prioritizes innovation. A recent Robert Half survey found that 87% of job seekers view a potential employer’s reputation for innovation as an important factor when evaluating the company. It’s associated with fun, collaboration, disruption, and a willingness to fail in pursuit of atypical rewards.
So why are truly innovative companies so rare?
The Dark Side of Innovation
Every employer wants to be able to tell a good innovation story to customers, employees, and prospective new hires. Most don’t realize that the right to tell that story must be earned the hard way. Innovation doesn’t just happen.
A willingness to fail means a willingness to accept the consequences of failure, and those can be severe. Especially at startups and small businesses, where the margin for error is slimmer, failure often means that people lose their jobs.
Any CEO or founder that is truly serious about pursuing innovation must be transparent with employees about the harsh realities inherent in that pursuit, especially with regard to company culture. “When it comes to innovation, the candid organization will outperform the nice one every time,” explains Gary Pisano, professor and senior associate dean of faculty development at Harvard Business School. “The latter confuses politeness and niceness with respect. There is nothing inconsistent about being frank and respectful.”
How to Build an Innovative Culture
That doesn’t mean it’s not worth pursuing, however. For leaders who are intent on building more innovative cultures, here are three strategies to consider:
- Prioritize intrapreneurship.
The term intrapreneurship was coined in the 1970s. It describes employees who seek to drive disruptive ideas through the companies they work for rather than start their own businesses. Like entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs are valuable because they are willing to take complete ownership over an idea and put all of their energy into bringing it to life.
Studies show that intrapreneurship can be a significant driver of growth and talent. As a leader, you can harness that potential by working to cultivate an ownership mentality among your team. Provide team members with opportunities to pitch you their ideas, much like entrepreneurs must pitch ideas to potential investors. If those ideas resonate with you, give employees the opportunity to further develop them and take a leadership role in bringing them to life. Showing your employees that you value them in this way makes them far more likely to want to add value to your company.
- Encourage experimentation.
Most employees, especially Millennials, want jobs that challenge and inspire them. Sure, some will be content to show up, do the job they were hired to do, collect a paycheck, and leave, but others will be naturally inclined to seek out new experiences at work. By encouraging them to do so, you can create the kind of work environment necessary for innovation. Rather than micromanage them, show your employees you trust them by giving them flexible schedules and time to cultivate personal interests outside of work.
Encourage professional development among your team, and give employees incentives to pursue additional learning opportunities or certifications. You could use monetary incentives to encourage this type of advancement, such as tuition assistance, a one-time bonus to employees who complete a degree, or even a semester book stipend. And non-monetary support helps, too, such as flexible hours while taking classes or sharing and celebrating education achievements with the team. Reward those who take advantage of these opportunities by providing them with new challenges as a way to test and further develop their skills.
- Build a portfolio of innovators.
There are most likely innovators inside of your company, but there are also opportunities to benefit from outside innovators. Companies like Procter & Gamble, Bosch, and Henkel use technology scouts to proactively search for external sources of innovation. Chances are good that there are programs and communities producing innovative ideas in your area. Creating a network of outside partners could increase the odds that those ideas infiltrate your own workplace.
“One of the best ways to start a portfolio of innovation is to invest in a specific group or program that’s dedicated to driving change,” explains Dan Lauer, founding executive director of the UMSL Accelerate. “By fostering an accelerator program, companies can benefit from the entrepreneurial mindset that such programs encourage.” Accelerators are built to attract people seeking to pursue potentially disruptive ideas, and most of them are at least partially funded by established companies.
The pursuit of innovation is not for everyone. However, in an increasingly competitive business environment, those organizations that are able to cultivate innovative thinking stand the best chance of sustained success. Be candid with your team about your company’s vision and what innovation means to you. Make sure you understand the risks, but don’t let those prevent you from chasing the rewards.
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