What do these three things have in common?
- Amazon Prime – Amazon’s $120/year membership service, with an estimated 100 million members
- Gmail – Google’s free e-mail platform, with more than 1.5 billion active users
- McCafe – McDonalds’ highly successful café offering
The answer: All three ideas came from employees, not from management.
In a fast-changing world, innovation is everybody’s business. The businesses that survive and thrive in this disruptive world are those that embrace a culture of innovation.
Many leaders think innovation is about constantly “doing” innovation, with initiatives like hackathons, innovation off-sites, and skunkworks teams.
There’s nothing wrong with these initiatives, but there’s a better approach to baking innovation into your culture: Create the right environment for everyday innovation.
Author Ori Baufmann, in his book The Chaos Imperative, calls this “creating white space”. Think of this as like the margins in a book, which surround the text but don’t have any information in them. However, margins play an important role: They give the eyes rest, keep the text away from the paper’s edge, and provide space for scribbled notes.
In the same way, the “white space” in your business gives people the freedom and flexibility to experiment, try new things, discuss new ideas, and make mistakes without facing penalty.
Give your people space in three areas: permission, focus, and time.
First, give them permission to innovate:
- Be open to new ideas yourself. If people don’t see you accepting, embracing or initiating new ideas yourself, they will be reluctant to suggest ideas. Of course, it’s even worse if you actively criticise their ideas!
- Look forward. Some people “innovate” with suggestions that resist change and restore the status quo. Although this does create change, it’s not change that moves you forward. Instead, encourage innovation that adapts to change, embraces it, or leads it.
- Encourage criticism. Every Friday afternoon, team members at start-up company URX (now acquired by Pinterest) met for their “Contrarian Office Hour”, a meeting where anybody can raise any concerns, issues, problems, criticisms or opinions about how things are done. The issues are not raised as personal attacks, but as genuine opportunities to improve the workplace.
- Kill some sacred cows. Ask people to nominate long-established rules that “have always been done that way”, and imagine what would happen if you did them differently. This might just be a thought experiment that sparks an interesting discussion, or (even better) a chance to actually break the rules and see what happens.
Then give them a focus for their innovation:
- Give them many opportunities. In his book The Luck Factor, Richard Wiseman says extraverts tend to be “luckier” simply because they spend more time with other people, so they are more likely to create useful connections just by chance. This isn’t limited to extraverts, though; you can give everybody more opportunities and in different environments.
- Share problems, concerns and negative feedback. Your role as a leader includes protecting people from problems so they can get on with their work. However, if you take this to the extreme, they never get the chance to contribute solutions, either. Be more transparent with your team, and share problems, concerns, and negative feedback – with the intent of asking for their ideas.
- Remove some resources. Sometimes it’s better to give them less, not more, and that forces them to be innovative. In India, this is called “Jugaad Innovation”, which is about creating something with limited resources. In the Western world, this is often called “hacking”.
Finally, give them time for innovation:
- Find out what else they like. Ask people what lights them up, especially outside work. You never know what might spark great ideas, especially if you can find overlap between these interests and their work.
- Allocate personal time. Give them (paid) time to work on community projects or other non-work-related activities. This not only motivates them and helps the community; it also gives their brain “free time” that can help their creativity and innovation.
- Make it easy for them to speak up. Finally, make it easy for them to share their ideas – in private, in team meetings, through an online “suggestion box”, and in any other way that works for you.
Make no mistake: As a leader – especially a senior leader – innovation is your responsibility. Create a culture of innovation so you stay ahead of the game.
Written by Gihan Perera.
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