Leading tech companies often have employees engage in innovative work as part of their weekly routines. Whether it is part of their job description or a certain number of hours per week that they dedicate to exploratory projects, this time is usually focused on helping to achieve a long term mission or vision for the company. For organizations outside of tech, the concept of innovation can seem mysterious or difficult, so many companies engage in more incremental process improvements instead. While this may have sufficed a decade ago, a lack of innovation poses more of a threat as external economic, sociocultural and technological forces place pressure on organizations to react and adapt to a rapidly changing business environment.
While larger companies typically have an R&D department where innovation is the primary focus, many companies today are equipping employees at all levels with requests to innovate and move away from traditional siloed roles. Employee innovation can aid adaptation to internal and external pressures and inspire the development of skills that employees will find to be critical in the future. Placing innovation activities on one team or in one department is a model that is now outdated.
Employers who want their employees to innovate have to put systems and structures in place to enable this competency. This is especially the case if organizational cultures have traditionally been very structured, hierarchical, and focused on measuring specific results. Innovation often involves experimentation, failure, and development of ideas that may be outside of the current work scope. Expecting that employees will all of a sudden know how to innovate freely after reinforcing compliance to structured and rigid processes is an evolution that takes time, so leadership must take deliberate action to help reduce the learning curve. Here are two things that employers can do to spark employee innovation.
1. Structure processes that incorporate innovative thinking and activities
An innovation check can be incorporated into systems, processes, meetings, reviews, and other aspects of the business that are focused on getting results. Often when seeking to understand the value of innovation, senior executives will ask teams to report on the cost and schedule of research and development activities. These questions are more related to hierarchical project management and can be irrelevant as innovation often involves experimentation or even failure. Instead, executives can focus on defining specific innovation challenges, providing research sources for employees to explore, providing time and space for employees to ideate and come up with solutions and test them, and opportunities to iterate while sharing their findings and progress along the way. This approach doesn’t suggest that cost and schedule are irrelevant from innovation, simply that focusing on traditional project management measurements is an incomplete perspective as it relates to innovative activities
2. Make a deliberate effort to incorporate innovation into your culture
Team meeting check-ins, executive communications, team norms, signage, hiring practices, job descriptions, water cooler talk all play a part in shaping the norms for employee behavior. If employees are always rewarded when they hit a bullseye, then employees will be attempting to hit perfection and be very risk averse. If the organization is highly structured and hierarchical, employees will be less empowered to take on decision making, risks and experimentation without the involvement and support of several layers of management. Cultural norms can either hinder or aid innovation. What outdated cultural expectations or norms can you modify to encourage employee innovation?
Some leaders think that simply asking employees to be innovative will be all that is needed. For some organizations, it is. However, the more hierarchical, structured, and rigid of a culture your organization possesses, the more deliberate and structured you will need to be in leading employees in learning how and where to innovate. Creating some structure will help employees sense the familiarity of former norms as they cross the bridge to take on more of the responsibility for risk and opportunity identification. It is through innovation occurring at all levels that organizations will be able to effectively move toward an adaptive and resilient future.
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