11 Ways for Leaders to Encourage Innovation from Their Employees

Put a Little More Air in Your Employee’s Balloon

Matt Anderson Photography/Getty Images

Published 5/8/2015:

According to the Center for Creative Leadership“Studies have shown that 20 to 67 percent of the variance on measures of the climate for creativity in organizations is directly attributable to leadership behavior. What this means is that leaders must act in ways that promote and support organizational innovation.”

I often hear managers blame “the company” for not allowing employees to be innovative.

While that may be true to some extent, it frustrates me that these managers don’t seem to understand that in the eyes of their employees, they are they company.

Regardless of what kind of company you may work in, here are 11 things a leader can do to create an environment where employees are encouraged to be innovative:

1. Don’t pop the balloon, put a little more air in the balloon. I borrowed this from a senior executive that I work with. What he means is, when an employee comes to you with an idea, resist the urge to come up with all kind of reasons why the idea won’t work. That’s throwing darts at the idea. Instead, come up with ways to help the employee identify barriers and solutions, encourage the employee to test the idea, or look for things about the idea that will work. In other words, put air in the balloon.

2. Allow your employees time to innovate. Some call this “Google time” – giving employees a few hours a week to experiment, work on projects that are outside of their jobs, to read, or to solve problems.

3. Encourage your employee to hang out with “PNLUs” (people not like you). People that are different bring a different perspective and fresh ideas. Some teams invite PNLUs to be a part of their project teams. I once heard someone say he purposely requests the middle seat on airplanes, because it doubles the change that he will meet someone interesting.

4. Practice and encourage “possibility thinking”. Instead of saying, “It won’t work,” or, “We already tried that,” say Well, up until now it hasn’t worked,” or, “What if…?”

5. Set a realistic expectation for innovation success. Innovative ideas, by their very nature, probably won’t be readily accepted or they will fail. What’s a good batting average for innovation? Some would say around 200, or one out of five ideas. Don’t let your employees get frustrated about the four rejections – instead, reward the effort and encourage them to come back swinging until they get a hit.

See “10 Ways to Get Support from your Boss for your Ideas.”

6. Accept failure as learning. Yes, it’s become a cliché that was recently mocked in the Dilbert comic strip, but if you don’t fall now and then, you’re not really trying. When an employee fails, ask them to reflect on what they learned, and encourage them to apply those learnings in the future.

7. Provide as much autonomy and ownership for jobs, projects, or tasks.

 According to Daniel Pink, employees are motivated the most by autonomy – the freedom to do things their own way. The challenge for many managers to allow employees to do things differently than they would do them, as long as they are getting good results. Who knows, they may come up with a better way!

8. Provide training. Innovation is not something a person is born with (DNA) – innovation can be learned. Provide training in associating, questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting.

9. Ask questions that encourage innovation. See “70 Awesome Coaching Questions Using the GROW Model.

10. Allow your employees to attend conferences and networking events. Again, in order to get them exposed to PNLUs and new ideas.

11. Encourage employees to observe their customers or users. This is central to the concept of “design thinking,” pioneered by the innovative design company IDEO. This isn’t about reading market research reports or user surveys – it’s about actually going out and observing the users of whatever it is you make or provide.

Continue Reading...