Throughout private industry and government, employees and managers are constantly being exhorted to be innovative. We set up innovation teams, labs, and contests to encourage employees to do more with technology. They are told “Be Innovative!” and create the next market-disrupting idea.
To make these efforts successful, leaders should strive to develop an environment that encourages employee behavior, leading to new and innovative thought. I call these the three C’s of innovation culture: Curiosity, Communication, and Courage.
Curiosity – “Learn something unexpected. “As children, most people asked plenty of questions – they wanted to learn. But inquisitive behavior usually gets discouraged as we grow older. We don’t want to appear foolish in front of our peers. An employee doesn’t want to appear uninformed in front of his supervisor. We often are reluctant to reveal to others the gaps in our knowledge. Encourage your employees to take advantage of their conversations throughout the day and take the extra effort to learn something new, especially when meeting someone for the first time. Today I met someone and learned how recycling plants sort plastic within milliseconds using light sensors. Taking the time to see where this person would lead the conversation allowed me to learn something unexpected. Curiosity widens our knowledge and perspective, giving us a better opportunity to develop innovative solutions later on.
Communication – “Different perspectives + open communication -> new approaches.” Who do your employees talk to each day? Most likely, the same 4 or 5 employees with similar backgrounds are assigned to the same unit. Different perspectives addressing a challenge together often can lead to a more innovative and efficient solution. Encourage your employees to talk with others outside their immediate circle.
The conversations with the most outlandish ideas are more likely to occur in the breakroom, not the cubicle or conference room. Arranging the layout of your team to encourage chance encounters with other work units without a set agenda fosters the generation of more imaginative ideas. Consider grouping employees with different job functions together, as opposed to in siloed standalone units. A study conducted by MIT revealed that meaningful interactions dropped dramatically when an employee had to venture more than 50 feet from his desk.
Encourage your team members to avoid disparaging ideas that may at first glance appear to be unworkable. The most outlandish idea may become the springboard for a new imaginative solution. We want to encourage the free flow of ideas. If employees are concerned their peers will ridicule their ideas, the flow of new concepts will slow to a trickle.
Courage – “Don’t be afraid to fail. “Meaningful innovation involves risk. It may include attempting something that has never been done before. Structure your innovation project in a manner that allows for small manageable failures, as opposed to a spectacular disaster right before the scheduled deployment. Small failures will enable your team to learn and apply those lessons towards the final product. A corollary to courage is determination – encourage and inspire your team to press on after setbacks occur. You can do this by emphasizing what has been learned, that management continues to support the team and that the end result will be worth all their efforts.
Count on your team to develop great ideas. It is the leader’s job to establish the culture and processes to encourage new ideas and make the best ones a reality.