No one innovates to decrease a process or reduce the benefit. People innovate to bring life to a higher plane because improvement is a deeply held instinct.
Yet innovation doesn’t just happen – it requires cultivation of forces that will disrupt the comfortable. If you are the leader, your number one job is to provide an environment of innovation that will bring your team or business to the next level. Below are five powerful ways for leaders to unlock innovation within their organization.
#1 – Look For and Enlist Your Innovators
Every team has their innovators. They are the ones who speak out by making suggestions on how to do things better, often challenging the status quo. Innovators have big ideas and want to share them with the teams, which can create friction.
As a leader, your job is to enlist these innovators and turn their energy into actions that cultivate results. For example, a manager of one of our professional services groups presented me with an idea to build a new training program. The idea has merit; however, it needs more vetting beyond the “I have an idea” conversation. I asked him to build out the framework of the plan, and develop a model of how it could work within our business. He left the conversation energized and ready to take on the next phase of this innovation.
As a leader, you must have an open door policy of idea vetting. The key is willingness to listen and encourage innovators so they will be motivated to share their creative thinking.
#2 – Create Safety
Leaders create safe environments. Obviously, physical safety is the highest priority, but emotional safety is also important. Emotional safety gives people the opportunity to challenge and question the status quo without fear of retribution.
Strong leaders know that emotional safety is a key leadership tenet and it is not an accident. I recall a situation when two colleagues worked on an idea that resulted in strong results for the team. But during a company meeting, an executive took credit for their work, naming them only as a creative force behind the win. The team that had worked so hard were hurt. To fix the problem, the executive had to go back and quickly correct the misinformation.
Emotional safety is critical to a successful innovation engine. When team members see that action is taken to protect them and give them their due credit, they feel safe to try again.
#3 – Disrupt the Comfortable
Innovation’s job is to challenge the status quo and disrupt the comfortable, which brings with it complaints and dissatisfaction for those being disrupted. As a leader, your job is to get out in front of disruption through strong communications. No one likes surprises and unless you are clear with your messaging, the teams will revolt and hunker down for a fight.
Look for your allies in this process; you will need support to help move innovation forward. Enlist new recruits who see what the innovators see. Your goal is to get people to recognize that although disruption is painful, it is a necessary part of the innovation you need for a more successful organization.
#4 – Sponsor Initiatives
Leaders bring forth initiatives and sponsor them through funding and emotional support. This means you must have some control or influence over budgets, and you’ll need to allocate funds to promote your initiatives.
However, funding is only half of the equation. You will also need to support your team as they run into obstacles. Innovation is about calling out current processes as weak, flawed, or broken. Of course, the people within the current process may push back. Your job is to support both sides and encourage the change so everyone will have the sense of contributing to the win.
#5 – Stand By Failures
Leaders must support innovations — even when they fail. And they will fail. If your team is not failing, you’re not innovating enough or pushing hard enough.
A couple of years ago, I encountered an epic failure rolling out an automated cloud platform technology. My team spent months investing in an innovation that allowed the client to shorten time to success and increase security of the platform.
Yet when it came time to implement, the whole process fell apart because we had failed to take into account all of the customizations the client wanted. I stood before the client and owned the failure. I explained what happened and how my team would fix it. The client was pleased with my transparency, and let us complete the project.
In the end, the client was happy with our work, and my entire team learned from our failure. But more importantly, I stood by my team and owned the failure, even though it was difficult.
Innovation requires strong leaders with a proven strategy
Innovation doesn’t just happen. It is a mindful, overt act that requires a strong leader with a proven strategy for success.
Unlock innovation in your teams by looking for your innovators and creating a safe environment for them to express their visions. Allocate your time and money to support innovation initiatives and look to disrupt your comfortable teams. And finally, stand by the results. Take ownership when things go wrong and focus credit on the teams when they win.