Encourage Innovation by Saying Yes to Creativity
Many leaders say they want their organizations to be innovative. But saying you want to be innovative and creating a leadership culture that actually nurtures innovation are 2 different things.
Far too often, we’ve seen leaders subconsciously sabotage innovation by behaving in ways that kill new ideas. The sabotage isn’t deliberate — they really want to encourage innovation in their organizations — but they don’t know how to support it and fail to recognize their counterproductive behaviors.
What is Continuous Innovation?
Before we get into how leaders can encourage innovation, it’s useful to consider what we mean by innovation.
Many leaders associate the term “innovation” with game-changing disruptions of existing industries or the creation of new industries, like the way iTunes helped create a whole new way to sell and distribute music.
But research by the Smith Brain Trust suggests these high-impact, dramatic innovations are relatively rare. Though worthy of pursuit, they’re difficult to achieve.
What’s more common is “continuous innovation.” Continuous innovation consists of smaller, more frequent innovations. These lead to smaller gains but more reliably advance a company over time. Consider the way iTunes later added movies, television, and other media.
Focusing on continuous innovation has significant advantages over concentrating solely on the big, disruptive innovations. Continuous innovation:
- Strengthens an organization’s “innovation muscles.” Simply put, it builds an organization’s capacity to carry out innovation.
- Moves you forward as an organization. By placing a series of smaller bets on continuous innovation, a business can more reliably grow market share, develop new products and services, and find ways to be more efficient.
- Build momentum toward disruptive innovation. Finally, continuous innovation can provide the stepping stones that lead — at least sometimes — to those industry-shaking disruptions.
9 Ways Leaders Subconsciously Sabotage Innovation
Want to encourage continuous innovation and risk-taking? Then avoid the most common innovation-destroying behaviors we see:
Leaders often urge their people to “be more creative” but then quickly quash new ideas — and then don’t recognize the disconnect. They’re usually stuck in business thinking mode, where new initiatives require proof and precedents. Consider how you respond to a new idea; consciously shift into an “innovation thinking” mindset when evaluating new ideas, recognizing they won’t come with ironclad proof.
Leaders don’t commit the necessary resources or systems to properly evaluate innovative ideas. Assessing creative ideas is tough and requires more time, energy, and money.
Pushing a top-down approach.
A bottom-up “pull” approach, where leaders support and encourage innovation, helps the whole organization see the successes that innovation can produce and makes more people want to contribute.
Forcing structure and hierarchy.
Innovative companies know they need the color-outside-the-lines creatives, along with the by-the-book executors. Establish a healthy partnership between the “creative types” and the realists who get the job done. And recognize that to get the workers you need, you may need to redefine your talent portfolio to leverage gig economy workers and other freelancers.
Confining innovation to R&D.
When considering how to improve innovation in an organization, some leaders decide to designate an “innovation department” or task a small group of people with innovating. Resist this move, which fails to spread innovation across all parts of the organization, and instead puts the burden of managing innovation on a single group. When relegated to one department or arena, the subtext is that only that one person, group, or department is responsible for innovating, removing the responsibility for everyone else in the organization. But when everybody is on the lookout for opportunities that can build or replace current paradigms, an organization can thrive.
Read our white paper Turning Crisis Into Opportunity: Preparing Your Organization for a Transformed World to learn the importance of taking bold actions to push toward reinvention.
How are new ideas encouraged at work? Innovative ideas must be evaluated for business potential, but critiquing them first discourages creativity. By first praising innovative ideas, pro-innovation leaders send the message that new ideas are welcome.
De-risking innovative ideas.
As ideas travel through layers of management to the C-suite, the original idea is often stripped of any risk. In the process, the real innovation opportunity can be lost.
If it were a sure thing with no unknowns, it wouldn’t be innovative. Leaders who want to encourage innovation must learn to tolerate ambiguity and refuse to fall into the feasibility trap, which occurs when managers focus on what is feasible instead of what might be possible. By deeming an idea “feasible,” that suggests it can be accomplished fairly easily or conveniently; yet if it’s that easy to do, the idea isn’t likely very creative.
An idea that only “might be possible” means there is probably a lot of hard work required to make it happen, with an uncertain outcome. So beware of saying that you want innovation and then looking for the most feasible idea as your measure of desirability.
Acting like a know-it-all.
Leaders who model humility are much more likely to see their employees come up with creative ideas to solve the organization’s challenges than leaders who seem as though they already have all the answers.
Encouraging innovation and risk-taking requires more than simply avoiding these 9 innovation-sabotaging behaviors. But if your organization has tried to cultivate a culture of innovation and failed, consider whether these unintentional behaviors may be part of the problem. Are you or others at your organization guilty of subconsciously sabotaging innovation?
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