If innovation could be accomplished through vision statements, press releases, or rally cries, we’d all be rock-star innovators. But developing a strategy and mindset for creative thinking takes actual work. At the core of every truly innovative organisation is a leadership team that invests and actively participates in the process of generating new ideas. Instead of paying mere lip service to the concept, these leaders are role models who reflect the behaviours they want to see from their staff.
Employees at all levels take their cues from management so it’s essential that senior executives practice what they preach. This means a climate of innovation must start at the top, ideally with senior leaders who are both inspiring and dedicated. Through years of innovation training for the world’s foremost companies, my firm, futurethink, has identified an effective formula for leadership role-modelling. Use the four tips below to increase innovation activity and results from your entire organisation:
Dedicate a budget. Capital One’s CEO Richard Fairbank continues to champion the enterprising spirit of the firm he founded in 1988. Innovation is flourishing through projects like Capital One Labs, where entrepreneurs-in-residence focus on reimagining the banking experience. From coders and data scientists to product developers, this group is pioneering new approaches to security, reward platforms, and affiliate programs.
In your own business, build an innovation sandbox where a small, cross-departmental team of visionaries collaborate and rapidly test new concepts. Invest in innovation tools that provide the team with on-demand resources for creativity and problem solving. Appoint a passionate leader to shepherd ideas into business possibilities as quickly as possible. Assigning a specific fund for innovative projects is the ultimate indicator that senior management is putting its money where its mouth is.
Define and communicate desired behaviours. Telling people to “be innovative” isn’t specific enough to create a culture that embraces change and new ideas. True leaders know they must define and communicate the innovative behaviours they want to see in order to get the results they need. At General Electric, creating a culture that focused on growth and new business expansion was critical. So, in 2009, the company started evaluating top managers on what it calls “growth traits,” which include external focus, imagination, and courage. Define these behaviours for your own organisation or team by imagining your company in various real-world scenarios: How should employees ideally act (inventive, bold)? What’s unique or effective about your organisation (process-focused, creative mind-set)? What do you want outsiders to say about it (disruptive, collaborative)? Letting people know what behaviours you want to see can start to shape how internal decisions are made, what ideas get funded, and type of risks people are willing to take.
Host an idea competition and celebration. As part of its Open Innovation Program, NASA collaborates with a number of organisations including the World Bank, Microsoft, and Google on a project called “Random Hacks of Kindness (RHoK).” The goal of this joint initiative is to develop open-source technology that will address disaster management, education challenges, and crisis responses. And to accomplish that goal, nearly 6,000 volunteers—software developers, independent hackers, and students—from 30 different countries come together in person and online. In the five years since the first RHoK, NGOs have implemented winning technological solutions on the ground in Africa, Australia, and Haiti.
If an event on this scale isn’t feasible for you, consider an internal competition between offices and a virtual award ceremony. Invite vendors or partners to participate in subsequent competitions to increase the diversity of perspectives and solutions.
Show tolerance for risk. At software company Intuit, failure is literally celebrated. Each year, senior leadership gives out the “greatest failure” award to the employee who sticks his or her neck out the most in an effort to move the company forward to a new place. Intuit believes that failures can provide the seed for its next great idea—an outlook that’s proven successful for many other companies. There are loads of examples where a failed experiment ended up reaping benefits. Silly Putty was a failed synthetic rubber substitute before it became a best-selling toy in the 1950s. Cellophane was born out of a failure to create a waterproof coating for fabric. Without the determination or willingness to learn from a failure, success stories like these wouldn’t exist.
In your own business, publicly define a smart risk in terms of time investment, financial impact, required resources, or prototyping. Demonstrate your tolerance for the risk by holding an annual failure ceremony or spotlighting a risky experiment to the rest of the organisation. Use the company’s intranet to provide real-time updates even if the project isn’t on track. And regardless of the outcome, make a point to publicly commend the risk-takers.
Employees take behavioural cues from their leaders, so innovation activity must be modelled from the top. To inspire your team, turn words into action by allocating a specific budget for creating and testing new ideas, and by defining the behaviours you hope to see. Engage employees at all levels through idea competitions, and celebrate experiments that both succeed and fail—in the spirit of moving the business forward. With this formula, you’ll begin walking your innovation talk…and the rest of your organisation will follow.
Written by Lisa Bodell
Lisa Bodell is the founder and CEO of futurethink, which uses simple techniques to help organizations around the world embrace change and increase innovation capabilities. She brings her compelling message to more than 100,000 people a year, showing them how to eliminate unnecessary tasks from their everyday routines. Through futurethink’s tools, Bodell has transformed teams within Google, Novartis, and Accenture. Through her new book, Why Simple Wins, her message of simplification is reaching readers at companies of all sizes around the globe.