If you believe innovation is important and should be at the heart of how you support your customers, you’re in good company. Most organizations want their employees to find new, creative ways to meet customer demands and solve problems. But organizations often fall back on the familiar processes and methods they have already created, doing their work the same old way. If you find that your employees are stuck in an outdated pattern of working, it is worth considering that perhaps organization leaders are unintentionally killing innovation.
As management consultants, we’ve been in client engagements where the team environment was stagnant, and leadership was focused on existing tasks and short-term results. Even though clients often ask for creative ideas and innovative solutions to their problems, teams are not always optimized for success. Leaders often unintentionally create roadblocks and stifle innovation – hurting team culture and creating frustrated employees and clients.
We find that there are three ways a leader may be killing innovation without even knowing it:
Leading with negative energy: In any organization, proactive leadership is a major factor in the success or failure of innovation. Some leaders focus primarily on managing and controlling people and resources as a way to accomplish intended goals, but exhibit behaviors that create fear, resentment and frustration. These leaders do not pay enough attention to new ideas, or the energy and desire of their teams to achieve results. Often, they think that creative ideas are not tangible, so they focus on immediate actions that can produce immediate payoff.
Taking shortcuts to get to creative results: Innovation is key for organizational transformation, but to prepare for innovation there needs to be both a culture of creativity (at the organization level) and creative thinking mindset and skill development (at the personal level). Creativity doesn’t happen overnight and there are no shortcuts. If you don’t value the journey, pushing everyone through the motions won’t work. Creative processes such as design thinking and systems thinking work because a specific series of steps are taken together by the team, designed to bypass the same old ways of working. You can get to a new untried idea, but you must put in the time.
Expecting a “right” answer: Do you already know the answer? Forget it. To create a culture of innovation, organizations must foster and nurture an open, curious mindset and embrace exploration and even failure as part of the innovation process. Failure to arrive at the “right” solution on schedule doesn’t mean the creative process has failed. It means the creative process is underway. These different approaches – while they may seem odd to the uninitiated – will take you somewhere new and different if you let them. The exploration isn’t a luxury, it is the path to new untried approaches and solutions that do not yet exist.
So how can you position your team to be ready to embrace a culture of innovation? Part of the solution lies in creating “safe spaces.” Although the term may sound like management jargon, safe spaces are crucial to allowing teams to shed preconceived ideas and fears about failure and be open to taking risks. Some of the key aspects of creating safe spaces include:
Instilling ownership: Ensure that teams feel they have a sense of ownership over the project and the ability to make decisions. For example, reward those who take ownership and accountability and help them when escalation or guidance is needed. Give them top cover when they need it.
Removing fear: Remove the fear of punishment for “failure” to enable them to be willing to take the risks required to create innovative ideas and solutions. For example, treat failure as part of the innovation process, which it is. Not every innovative idea will work. Give credit for trying smartly.
Creating a clear vision: Create a clear vision and shared sense of meaning, so everyone knows where they are going and the roadmap to get there. For example, invest in telling the story behind the work – help your team understand how their tasks fit into the big picture – both the “what” and the “why.” Start every meeting reiterating the why.
Fostering confidence: Reinforce the goal of creating new solutions, even if some ideas don’t work. This instills a feeling of confidence that can be contagious in teams. For example, encourage your teams to ask questions to increase their awareness of the challenge or problem they’ve identified. Asking questions will generate solutions. Use exemplars of innovation such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to help them know what questions to ask.
At our firm, there is a culture concept called “casting a positive shadow.” This is the job of all employees — at any level — to reinforce the importance of leading by example. This is a great foundation to start creating safe spaces for innovation and creativity in teams. By pivoting from focusing on outputs to creating value for clients, leaders can be freed from the burden of business as usual and unlock the full potential for teams to work together to create new and innovative solutions. Each one of us has this potential; the key to innovation lies within you.
Khedidja Ouheb is a Senior Associate and John O’Connor is an Experienced Manager at Grant Thornton Public Sector.