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Jul 9, 2020

Innovation appears in most organizations’ strategy or mission statements. But what does it actually take to achieve innovation?

It takes people. Specifically people with…people skills. 

Now, if you are running a project to build a piece of infrastructure or design a new car, you’ll need hard skills: engineering, planning, cost-estimating, scheduling. These are the skills that will enable delivery of the output

However, the skills associated with whether the process toward that output is successful are largely soft: working with clients or suppliers, negotiating changes to the scope of projects, agreeing to solutions that address unanticipated risk, managing conflict, keeping everyone committed to projects, motivating people to hit deadlines, etc.

How to Drive Innovation With Soft Skills

Soft skills are what make risk-taking and managing uncertainty possible in organizations. They’re the means of creating psychological safety for employees — because an environment of mistrust, judgmental managers, gossip, and fear of failure will not lead to innovation.

Indeed, a two-year study at Google found that psychological safety was the key factor to having a successful, high-performing team. In other words, the same kind of team you need to harness the power of diverse ideas that lead to creativity and innovation. 

Here’s how you can focus on soft skills to build greater psychological safety and nurture a culture of innovation:

  1. Know yourself. Notice your own responses to new ideas, possibilities, brainstorming, and failure (your own and others). Are you the one who says, “We tried that before. It didn’t work”? How strongly do you hold on to the status quo? How much do you really look for new opportunities and ideas? Adjust your mindset to be welcoming of idea generation, knowing most new ideas fail and you only need one to succeed (like how the iPhone changed Apple’s future).
  2. Be trusting. Give people the benefit of the doubt, especially in public and when someone is taking a risk. Safety is when someone can be vulnerable without fear. Share vulnerabilities about yourself, when you’ve failed, what you learned. Admit when you don’t know something or made a mistake.
  3. Celebrate innovation. This includes attempts at innovation. As Albert Einstein said, “Failure is success in progress.” And as Thomas Edison said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” When an employee shares a mistake or a failure, ask, “What have you learned?” When a project stops or fails, have a meeting to debrief about learnings. Positively reinforcing behaviors like smart risk-taking, learning, and putting one’s head above the parapet will ensure that they will be repeated.
  4. Listen. When people feel that they are really being seen and heard as individuals, they are more trusting. So listen to what people say and what they don’t say. Listen for their assumptions and beliefs (both empowering and limiting). By understanding people better, you can learn about their needs and motivations to help them feel secure and unleash their potential. 
  5. Say what you want. If you want more innovation, ask for it. Give people opportunities to innovate and the parameters within which they can take risks. Empower employees to innovate within their jobs for increased efficiency and effectiveness. And highlight where innovation has been happening in the organization or outside. 
  6. Coach people. Coaching helps people find their own solutions. This creates resourcefulness in them and unearths their ideas. More ideas — yours and theirs — means more options and potentially better solutions. 
  7. Be curious. Ask questions. Challenge assumptions. Uncover organizational blind spots. Many people think that if they give the best answer in a meeting, they will appear to be the smartest person in the room. But my experience is that the smartest person in the room asks the best question, the one that causes everyone to take a breath and really think. That’s the place where true innovation happens. 
  8. Foster courage. Courage is the ability to do something in the face of fear and pain, to face difficulty and danger. Innovation requires courage as it’s dangerous to try new things. This might sound similar to the idea of vulnerability above — and that’s because it is. Courage and vulnerability are two sides to the same coin. You can’t be courageous without being vulnerable, and vice versa. 
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