How to Drive Innovation in Your Team
Driving Innovation means switching your mindset to progressing an unknown future
Studies show that 94% of business executives are unhappy with their company's innovation efforts.
From this, we can extrapolate that driving innovation is a crucial in-demand skill that business leaders should possess.
Especially in such a volatile era, with radical shifts in markets and circumstances, successful businesses will be those that adapt quickly in such a tumultuous environment by translating emerging needs into innovative offerings.
Why is driving innovation critical to business success?
In today's business environment, companies that are not constantly innovating risk falling behind and becoming irrelevant.
Innovation will help companies better serve existing customers, grow into new markets, improve efficiency through process innovations, and, ultimately, increase profits.
Hence, the ability of a team leader to drive successful innovation is a precious skill.
Let's quickly establish why innovation is essential to business growth, particularly as we enter 2023:
- Competitive advantage
- Cost savings
- Technological progress
- Customer satisfaction
- Attracting and retaining top talent.
And let in a vital crux to drill down upon. The best leaders aren't necessarily the source of innovation efforts. Instead, they inspire innovation through their leadership, creating a company environment where innovation can flourish.
Impactful leaders drive innovation by encouraging risk-taking, breaking down traditional barriers to progress, encouraging ideas sharing, removing outdated work models that stifle innovation, and relinquishing control over the decision-making process.
Such building blocks are the “soil” in which people “dare to innovate” and thus build the foundation of a truly innovative culture.
Breaking down barriers
Breaking down barriers allows for the free flow of ideas and information that nurtures exploration. With barriers in place, teams feel limited to share ideas and reluctant to pursue creative collaboration and problem-solving.
But what specific barriers are we talking about?
1. Organizational inertia to change
Companies stuck in rigid routines only serve to think creatively. Suppose the business process is firmly established as a top-down structure, where employees view senior leadership as all-powerful decision-makers – here people don't speak up to suggest change. Innovative cultures embrace fluidity and even failure, empowering everybody to share their opinions, even dissenting voices, and see failed experiments as opportunities to learn.
2. A non-existent innovation strategy
A significant barrier for business leaders to overcome is the belief that innovation is organic. Instead, innovative companies understand that they need to bundle activities towards an all-embracing strategy.
Did you know that a guiding ISO standard for innovation management (ISO 56002ff) aims at supporting existing organizations in the establishment, implementation, maintenance, and continual improvement of an innovation management system? Innovation strategy is part of that.
3. Focusing on short-term goals
A new software or agile work setup can make a difference in the short term. However, for groundbreaking innovation with long-term sustainable growth, there needs to be a cultural shift over a longer term. Some bad examples of digital transformations show that mindsets matter and people need time before they shift gears into concerted new action.
The best companies don't think about innovation as a way to improve next quarter's numbers. Instead, they hire an innovation officer to direct a whole new strategic direction with cross-functional teams, effective communication, and collaboration across the company and beyond.
4. Leaving teamwork as it is
Another barrier stems from the established team environment. Teams in existing companies are used to working in well-known ways, i.e. reaching well-defined goals, preventing accidents, and ensuring compliance. For innovation to become a habit, different collaborative practice needs to emerge. In a hbr review, business leaders outline an approach to breaking down barriers through BEANs, shorthand for behavior enablers, artifacts, and nudges. The method is all about promoting innovation efforts in a company by building a framework that enables and supports innovative behaviors. They share various case studies, including superbank DBS, in which this long-term innovation strategy has borne fruit.
Such examples show leaders can't sit idly by and hope to automatically encourage innovation by talking a good talk. You need to invest time and energy - to walk the walk - to promote innovation through an understanding of behavioral sciences and embed this within the workplace culture.
5. It's more than just digital transformation
Innovation is more than digital transformation. Building an innovative culture that improves team innovation performance is fundamentally about the people, not the tools.
Company executives must move past the idea that new technology is a panacea for all corporate ills and instead look to invest in people for long-term growth.
Reboot your HIPPO
The HIPPO is a business acronym referring to the Highest Paid Person's Opinion. It refers to the problematic tendency that people with the highest salaries in the room often get to hold sway as the decision-makers, regardless of expertise level. Their opinion shape the way forward, not the customers' voice or emerging market data.
Here lies the crux anchored in the human wiring
Of course, many leaders do contribute innovative ideas worth pursuing. The critical point here is to understand that a company-wide culture of innovation needs to embrace ideas from all levels, all team members, and all cultural perspectives.
The role of the HIPPO, therefore, becomes that of facilitating collaboration and co-creation ACROSS THE EXISTING BARRIERS as opposed to an innovation politician. When the KODAK moment happened, the HIPPO effect was the reason for ideas not going through. So, listen and enable innovation instead of driving it yourself.
Practical ways to drive innovation
Let’s run through some simple, actionable steps that team leaders can implement to encourage innovation in the workplace.
Innovation often requires outside-of-the-box thinking where the potential for failure is naturally higher than following the status quo.
Therefore, employees need to have psychological safety to embrace an experimental approach.
As a team leader, you’re responsible for nurturing this safe space.
You can do this by:
- Publicly acknowledging those willing to be the first to take risks. This highlights that the company values risk-takers.
- Offer (financial) incentives to individuals who develop ideas, whether they succeed or not.
- Deliberately pick out risk-takers for further training or promotional opportunities. They might be your go-to person since they have the courage to try out new ways.
- As a leader, you can set an example that can encourage others to follow suit. You could talk about a time when you tried something new and failed.
- Allow flexibility in terms of deadlines and work hours, allowing time to experiment.
- Give autonomy to individuals in terms of decision-making which might be minimal at the start and get bolder over time.
These steps are all about demonstrating that the team and broader company value the behaviors associated with innovative thinking and acting.