by Meg Crosby
There is a new book on my reading list. The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore is a fictional account of the historical rivalry between Thomas Edison, who invented the light bulb, and George Westinghouse, who improved upon it and ultimately wired the country. So, the question is, which of the two was the innovator? Both! Innovations come in all shapes and sizes — from the groundbreaking invention to the iterative improvement, and from the major disruptor to the better, faster, cheaper. It’s all innovation.
One thing that is true for every business is the mantra, “Innovate or die!” We are living in a time where the pace of change has accelerated due largely to technology and a global economy. The challenge for companies today is to make innovation a part of their culture. Even the most mature businesses and the least sexy industries have room to innovate. Here are five actions leaders can take to unleash innovation potential.
Ask your employees. Innovation comes from the front lines — from the people who are closest to the work every day. Those who do the work are generally the best positioned to improve the way the work is done. Surveys, interviews, focus groups, and town hall meetings can be great ways to ask your employees to volunteer their ideas. When you ask, you do two things: You let your employees know that innovation is important to the company and that their thoughts and ideas are valued.
Mix it up. Remember the great Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups commercial? “You put your chocolate in my peanut butter!” Breaking down silos and encouraging communication between employees with different skillsets, or who are focused on different points of a supply chain, will bring multiple perspectives to the table. Multiple perspectives not only tend to have a better result in solving the problem, but also ensure buy-in from those most impacted by the changes or solutions.
Give them the tools. Resources are a critical component to innovation. Google engineers love working at Google because they have the opportunity to use Google’s vast computing resources to solve complex problems — something not available anywhere else. What resources (time, equipment, talent, training, space, etc.) can you provide to your employees to help them innovate?
Embrace failure of the right kind. Innovation requires taking risks. It’s true that risks don’t always pay off; however, lots of learning occurs when people fail. And that learning is very valuable. If you are serious about innovation, allow for the right kind of failure. And make sure that the team understands why something failed and what they can learn from it in order to persevere. (Side note: When we talk about failure here, we’re talking about honest effort, preparation, thought, and teamwork that does not result in the intended outcome for some reason. This is the type of failure that can be studied and iterated upon for future success. This is the type of failure that leaders should expect and should not punish. We are not talking about the kind of failure that results from sloppiness, laziness, procrastination, etc.)
Be open to ideas. Many leaders that we work with are stunned to find out that their employees perceive they are not open to hearing new ideas. This disconnect results in a culture where employees are reticent to bring forth an idea or innovation. To combat this, find a way to say “yes” to employees. If someone comes into your office with what seems like a crazy idea, don’t quash it right away. First, praise them for their initiative. Then, ask them to do more research on the idea or come back with a more detailed plan. One of two things will happen: Either they will come back with a well-researched plan that you can agree to or they will scrap the idea. Either way, you get credit for not dismissing ideas and more people will come forward when word gets out that you are open and receptive.
Meg Crosby is a principal with PeopleCap Advisors.
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