Did you know that Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928, but it took 15 years, until 1943, for it to become widespread in use? I have no idea when he came up with the original idea or how long it took him to actually make the discovery from when he started in his endeavours. But I’m sure none of it happened overnight.
Yet, time and time again I have conversations with leaders about innovation where they believe that, if staff could just be more innovative, they would be able to come up with, implement and see the results of such innovation almost immediately.
MMMmmm… Probably not going to happen. Sorry.
But innovation in the workplace can address various problematic areas in an organisation, albeit not overnight. Actually, it can often be quicker than you think if you encourage and enable innovation in the right way.
Let’s consider how you could enable innovation in your organisation.
How does innovation happen in the workplace?
We tend to think that innovation comes from one single brilliant flash of insight. One amazing light bulb moment. But, more often than not, it is a drawn-out process of discovering an idea, engineering a solution or implementing transformation within a sector, department or industry. It’s usually a series of ideas, which are then worked on until the final solution is found.
Rarely is innovation in the workplace carried out by one person alone. When clients become concerned about mavericks in the business or lone-wolf innovators, I am quickly able to reassure them that, within organisational structures, this can be curtailed by ensuring some processes are in place.
You see, in reality, innovation needs a team of people. This may include a variety of different specialists at various times throughout the innovation project, as well as project managers and day-to-day practitioners who ensure the innovation project comes to life. Because innovation needs a variety of skills and experience to make it happen, this team approach makes much more sense than a lone person being the innovator.
In most instances, innovation happens like this:
Whilst you may feel that the most fundamental element is coming up with the idea (and I agree, it’s the key element), it’s actually a very small part of the overall process. In my experience, more time needs to be spent up front on how ideas will be considered, selected and implemented. Only then can we begin to contemplate which problem areas we want to look at and consider. This means that when ideas are being put forward, they should be more in line with the problem areas and the format in which the organisation wishes to implement innovation.
For example, company ABC ask staff for innovative ideas with no clarification of what they are going to do with them or what areas of the business need to be considered. They get hundreds of ideas, but on closer inspection, none are really suitable, either because the resources are not available, or they focus on the wrong elements of the business. When nothing happens with the ideas, the staff become disillusioned, and if asked for ideas in the future, are less likely to be forthcoming.
Company XYZ ask staff for innovative solutions but are specific about the area of the business which needs addressing. For example, they ask for ideas around recruiting and retaining staff. The exec team explain that there are minimal amounts of money available to implement the initial idea, however, any savings on the recruitment bill will be used for staff development. They also explain that ideas will be considered when a business case is put forward, presenting the idea, explaining how it would work and describing what the expected outcomes might be. This means that ideas which are put forward are now more clearly considered, are focused on what’s needed, and are therefore more likely to be worth considering.
Most ideas need additional work before they are implemented, but the more the staff members know about the organisation’s needs, the more developed the idea will be before it’s submitted.
How can I encourage my staff to be more innovative?
First off, you need to trust them, and they need to trust you. Having each other’s backs is a core part of innovation. Knowing that the other party believes in what you are trying to develop and trusts that what you are doing is with the best interests of all involved is key. Believe me, I have tried innovation in a workplace built on fear and mistrust; it never works.
Clarity and communication come next. The clearer you are about what you mean by innovation, what you will accept, and just as importantly, what you won’t, the more likely that staff members will get involved. Once you have set the ball rolling on innovation projects, keep the communication frequent, open and honest; it will speed up the project, and you will be aware when problems arise so much faster, so that any issues can be quickly resolved without people laying blame and becoming disconnected from the project.
What should we do to kick start a more innovative culture?
Here are my “top ten tips to creating an innovative culture”.
- Be clear about what you mean by innovation. Explain to staff the parameters they are allowed to work within, and also clarify the process for submitting ideas and implementing innovation.
- Make time for innovation in meetings. Having regular conversations about developing innovation and discussing ideas and projects will help people feel included, and they will develop a greater understanding of what the organisation is looking out for.
- Review innovation ideas and projects regularly. As we start to develop an idea, reviewing it is part of the development process. It’s not about giving people chance to pick faults; rather, it is about giving people chance to add additional information, support and encouragement.
- Celebrate ideas that fail as well as those that work. Often, we learn more from the failures than we realise. Allowing people to know about ideas which have been tried but which don’t work can often lead to finding a solution that does work. Plus, just because something doesn’t currently work, doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good idea.
- Empower your employees. Make sure staff members know how to develop ideas and submit them for consideration. Don’t leave it to chance that you will learn about ideas. Make staff feel empowered to bring ideas forward at any time, not just when we have an innovation workshop.
- Teach staff that failure is okay and that trying again is vital. We need staff with “Bouncebackability”.
- Find a format to review your innovation culture. Look for a way to track progress and work out what is working for you in terms of developing innovation. What results are you expecting from encouraging innovation, and how will you know when it’s working?
- Be willing to take action. For a true culture of innovation, there must be a willingness to encourage action, otherwise we are just going to talk about how great we could be.
- Build trust. Trust is vital, but we especially need to trust that people will do what they say they will do and stick to the agreed format, even after they have left the meeting room.
- Review innovation projects. Far too often, organisations innovate an area of the business and then think it’s a job done, but more often than not, once that innovation is working, we can find more innovation to drive things forward even further.
Innovation needs to be a mindset, a way of thinking, and as such, needs to be part of a cultural change within an organisation. If you are considering embedding an innovative culture in your organisation, take a look at some of my other work on people-centred innovation.