As strategy execution consultants, we constantly see mandates to innovate and strategies built around innovation. More than ever, it seems that organic growth through innovation is a critical component of almost every company’s strategy.

We’ve gained a few insights from working with companies who are trying to encourage their people to be more innovative. Change of any kind is hard, and good leaders will steer their people through the changes needed to both create innovation and deploy it. Here are some of the human factors that need to be managed to ensure that you reach your destination of innovation.

Get Them Motivated and Keep Them Motivated

Innovation requires people to be as motivated to innovate as you are. To feel that motivation, they need to understand the strategic logic for innovation and the intent behind that logic. This is especially true in companies that have experienced incremental success without a focus on innovation. Many people can’t understand why innovation, with all of its perceived messiness, is important enough to outweigh the pain. If people are asking why you want them to innovate, try these techniques.

  • Give them an emotional connection by helping them “feel what the future will feel like” when it has been achieved. Help them see what you see. Telling stories, showing films, playing games – these are all powerful ways to help everyone emotionally experience the benefits of innovation and focus on the excitement rather than the difficulty. Whether it’s an orientation or a reminder of what it feels like to create something new, find ways for your people to feel the euphoria of innovation!
  • Help them see the business results of innovation by using data, group problem-solving, and simulations to show how innovation will help you achieve your goal and performance targets.
  • Show them a personal benefit by connecting the dots between business success and personal success. Focus on the emotional rewards of being creative and developing something new that someone else values.
  • Make it clear that management supports innovative thinking. If managers don’t create a safe place to experiment, it may be hard to build momentum for innovation! We often witness middle management’s actions actually working against innovation. This may show up as reinforcement of the status quo, punishing failures rather than celebrating early wins, criticizing new ideas, and failing to recognize when a new idea is suggested. We need to place failure and innovation right next to each other. We can’t innovate if we don’t fail, and people need to make this connection when we prepare them for innovation.

Show Them the Results

Next, make it clear how innovation supports the strategy and what innovation means for each role. Innovation is often misconstrued as the goal. Innovation is actually the things you do to achieve your goals. Innovative cultures, habits, behaviors, and routines are the human factors that enable you to innovate to achieve your goals. Being clear about how innovation helps you achieve your goals and then shoring up the human factors that enable innovation will set you up for success. That’s the hard part for leaders: getting clear on the parts of the business that will drive innovation, and what parts of the business will be affected by innovation. It’s critical to help align your organization on those things. You may want your R&D department to lead innovation, but not your legal department. To get everyone on board, you need to know who’s in charge of innovation and how it affects everyone else. People will need to know a role-by-role definition of what’s expected, and each role will need to redefine its focus based on this new mandate.

Getting Them Started

Creating an atmosphere of innovation requires change. Think about your own company. Hundreds, even thousands of people are giving their time, talents, and energy to push the company toward your goals. They’re tired, and they don’t want more work. Leaders must overcome the inertia by instilling new behaviors, routines, and habits.

To innovate, you have to begin by navigating through some fog. People are afraid of the unknown. This shows up as fear of reprisal, fear of embarrassment, and fear of inefficiency. There will almost certainly be some hard, time-consuming thinking required to get through the fog, so create an environment where this is accepted and understood.

One of the best ways to spark a cultural movement in your organization is to create a subculture of innovators, and then spread their behaviors, routines, and habits throughout the company. You won’t be able to create this subculture if your most innovative people are scattered across your organization. Give the innovators opportunities to spend time together so they can build momentum and generate visible examples of the culture of innovation that you want to create. Allow them to work on small projects that illustrate in a tangible way what you want to encourage. Then, tell their stories and connect them to results so people across the organization can say, “Now I know what the desired innovation looks like,” and “I can do that too!”

March 20, 2012


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