Workplace Innovation Is Not Spontaneous – You Need Real Change to Make it Go

To boast a culture of innovation, an organization may need to make significant changes to its existing climate.

Change can require an effort and commitment that many companies are not willing to fully exert, but in order to drive innovation, change must occur. Managers or decision makers may want to consider the following:

  • Risk-taking must be rewarded. Operationally-minded organizations must shift to emphasize a more entrepreneurial bent. People must be encouraged to take risks and attempt initiatives that are beyond the scope of their company’s traditional operational boundaries. A carefully crafted system of rewards and recognition will foster the desired spirit; however, the rewards should not always be monetary.
  • Mistake-making must be tolerated. Everyone knows that on his quest to develop the light bulb, Edison stated he first successfully found 1000 ways not to invent the light bulb. More than tolerating mistakes, he learned and grew from them.

Fear is a great deterrent to employees’ willingness to experiment. In a supportive environment where workers are encouraged to learn from their mistakes, new ideas will be tested regularly. There will be many mistakes, but undoubtedly, some of these trials will generate brilliant, game-changing ideas. Post-It Notes, Viagra and chocolate chip cookies are but a few examples of very successful mistakes.

  • Communication must be open. Publicizing all attempts at creativity is essential. In fact, as noted earlier, it is equally important to post information about the failures. Instituting a monitored innovation funnel is often times beneficial. The funnel functions when managers encourage everyone in the organization to submit suggestions for improvement.

Twice monthly, a cross-functional group of managers and non-managers should meet to respond to these suggestions. Each suggestion can then be assigned a tracking number and designated a member of the suggestion review team. That member will bring this suggestion to the attention of whoever oversees the particular area. The suggestion will then be posted publically, as well as the response to the suggestion.

A distribution company outside of Philadelphia instituted such a highly communicative funnel under the direction of its Chief Operating Officer. Since the employees then realized their ideas were not going into a black hole, the number of suggestions blossomed.

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  • Leaders must be comfortable hiring and nurturing stronger people than themselves. It is old-fashioned to believe that a leader must be stronger (in all aspects) than his or her “subordinates.” Modern organizational development theory says that the strongest leaders are those who surround themselves with the best and brightest talent available. This theory goes on to explain that in doing so, by elevating all around him or her, the leader will in turn be elevated.

Silicon Valley venture capitalist and author Guy Kawasaki once remarked that, “‘A’ people surround themselves with ‘A+’ people; on the other hand ‘B’ people surround themselves with ‘B-’ people, which in turn surround themselves with ‘C+’ people and before you know it, your organization is full of ‘F’ people.”

  • And a system of measurement must be implemented to ensure that all of this is happening as planned. Without accurate measurement, it is impossible to know with certainty which direction an organization’s culture is trending, or whether it is changing at all. The implementation of a tool that quantifies a company-wide perspective on leadership, communication and teamwork will serve as an essential guide in the process of creating an innovation-centric culture.

Integrating diverse, challenging ideas into the workplace is a recipe for sustainability.

It will not suffice for the President to just tout the importance of innovation and decree innovation-culture as the newest organizational initiative – real change must occur. In addition, frequent, consistent communication of messages using a variety of channels is required to infuse employees with the understanding that expectations have changed and the greatest risk a person can now take is not innovating.

Susan Lesser is co-founder of nPlusOne Consulting , a Connecticut-based management consulting firm that helps businesses increase profitability by identifying and benchmarking their human resource challenges. With her MBA, Masters in Counseling and more than two decades of experience, Susan provides senior counsel to family businesses, closely-held enterprises, and non-profit organizations.