3 Ways to Promote a Culture of Innovation

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Aug 25, 2016

We all wish we could have an employee like Greg Greiner.

A recent hire at Uber for Business, he came up with an idea that would benefit the company — a way for organizations to buy Uber credits for anyone attending one of their events. Prior to Greg’s idea, Uber employees were manually creating Uber credits for event attendees whenever a business made a request. They couldn’t scale the program because of their limited manpower.

Greg went to his boss and suggested the new feature, but he was told that the resources were already committed and they didn’t have the bandwidth to work on it. So Greg cajoled co-workers to volunteer and give up a weekend to work on creating the feature in their free time. In one weekend, his nimble team was able to build out the concept, and UberEvents was born.

With amazing initiative and sacrifice on behalf of his company, Greg showed that his ideas and skill set made him irreplaceable.

I recently discovered the importance of these irreplaceable employees for myself. I asked more than 1,000 managers and business owners nationwide to describe their most essential employee, the employee who creates so much value that they could never fathom letting that person go. This group of managers didn’t talk about employees who were good at their jobs. They glowed when they shared stories of employees — like Greg — who went beyond their job descriptions, creating opportunities for the company and solving problems.

So what’s the difference between Greg Greiner and other employees sitting nearby? The difference is simple — he believed that true innovation was more important than the small scope of his job description.

Innovator or preservationist

Employees tend to fall into two categories: those interested in innovation or preservation. Employees focused on preservation are worried about job security and respond by doing exactly what’s asked of them — nothing more. Innovators see the potential in unique situations and ask, “Why not?”

Oftentimes, the biggest reason employees fall into the preservation mindset is because they fear failure. They fear going out on a limb and trying anything new because, in fear-based cultures, failure results in ridicule or punishment. In their eyes, it’s better not to try than to fail and risk losing respect.

Employees also develop a preservation mindset when they feel pressure to say “yes” and follow the rules, regardless of what the data says. The organization, its leaders, or its processes have been around a long time, and employees either do what they’re told or are forced to leave. Regardless of the potential value or their own goals and priorities, they say “yes,” rendering themselves irrelevant as the company fails to respond and innovate.

Create irreplaceable innovators

Understanding what causes employees to disengage — rather than try to create value — is exceedingly important. But this knowledge is ultimately useless without a plan to create and keep the high performers you can’t live without. If you’re looking to create a culture packed with innovators, the following tips are for you.

1. It’s not just a pep talk — it’s a habit. Instead of a rousing speech about thinking outside the box, incorporate regular reminders and processes that encourage employees to dig for value. This doesn’t include a book they can read or a speech they can listen to, but a constant reminder.

I recently piloted a weekly habit-forming program that makes every person, regardless of position or influence, sit down and think strategically about his or her job for 15 minutes every week. Just like exercise and healthy eating, staying innovative is a habitual investment in professional development. Find something that can be done on a regular basis, and measure its progress.

2. Habits need the right environment to thrive. These habits will only stick around if employees feel their work is noticed and valued. A community of support and safety will prevent the habit from dying.

Don’t encourage someone to try something new, only to fire or embarrass that person if (and when) the new idea doesn’t work out. Use large meetings to recognize what people have tried and highlight development resources. Create an environment where people feel safe to innovate and explore.

3. They have to take the first step themselves. Unfortunately, you can’t just open a door and force employees to walk through it. You have to help them see how progressing their skills and their position ultimately benefits them.

Give them plenty of opportunities for self-development, and demonstrate how others at the company received promotions or accolades because they took the initiative to grow.

In short, irreplaceable employees don’t get fired. Innovative team members who create meaningful value for themselves and their bosses are last in line when the storms approach. Create an environment full of these irreplaceable innovators — and maybe, just maybe, you’ll miss the storm completely.