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Fostering an Innovation Culture

By Julian Mercer

One of the key skills of a successful manager is building and sustaining a workplace environment that encourages the innovations needed to improve efficiency, enhance productivity, and drive revenue and other desired performance outcomes. Fostering a culture of innovation is a multifaceted management task that requires consistency and commitment, leadership and resources. Here are five tips for managers seeking to nurture a culture of innovation within their team or organization:

1. Lead by Example

The first and most important tip is to lead your team by example. You can demonstrate a commitment to innovation by soliciting and embracing new ideas, showing a willingness to take calculated risks, and incentivizing creative problem solving. By modeling the desired behavior, you set the tone for the entire organization and encourage your team to do the same.

Encouraging open communication is another key tone-setting behavior. Don’t shut down ideas before the team has a chance to assess them. By fostering an environment that allows and encourages open communication where employees feel comfortable expressing ideas, raising concerns and providing feedback, you create a culture where sharing ideas is valued.

2. Invest In Your Team

Building an innovation culture requires the investment of resources, the most important of which is, often, time. Offer training programs and workshops that focus on creative thinking, problem-solving and innovation. Encourage employees to stay updated on industry trends and technological advancements, and to explore how emerging trends can be applied to the organization. Equip employees with the skills and tools necessary to generate and implement innovative ideas. Providing time for independent projects or brainstorming sessions can spark creative thinking and innovation. By giving your team the time to focus and reflect on a problem or opportunity, along with the necessary training, budget and tools to explore and implement their ideas, you create opportunities for innovation.

3. Make Innovation Part of Your Process

Another requirement for operationalizing an innovation mindset is to establish formal channels and platforms for submitting, evaluating and implementing innovative ideas. There are many tools you can use, from the simple suggestion box and regular staff retreats, to innovation contests. You can enable the desired behaviors by utilizing digital tools and platforms for collaboration and idea sharing. Experimenting with, and evaluating, different collaboration tools and processes can help reinforce the innovation culture.

You begin to operationalize an innovative mindset when you start setting and clearly communicating organizational goals related to innovation. You can frame goals in the form of desired outcomes or aspirations or as questions to be explored. Ensure that employees understand how their innovative efforts can contribute to the overall success and growth of the organization. By operationalizing innovation as a process, you create proactive opportunities for growth that foster a positive mindset, rather than relying on a reactive approach to problems and obstacles as they emerge. Taking an operational approach with goal setting can also empower your team, by allowing you to create targeted opportunities for learning and continuous improvement.

4. Enable Diversity of Thought

There is always more than one way to identify an opportunity or look at a problem, as every person interprets and interacts with the world based on their unique identity, culture and personal experiences. Enabling this diversity of thought empowers innovation. Exposure to diverse viewpoints can stimulate new ideas and broaden the innovation mindset within the organization. It also reduces the risks of “group think” in a problem-solving scenario.

Achieving diversity of thought requires more than just putting your engineering and marketing teams together at the planning table. As a manager, you need to make sure the individuals in the room reflect different skillsets, cultures and backgrounds and are allowed to share their thoughts and ideas and provide feedback in a productive way.

One way to encourage diversity of thought is to bring in external perspectives through partnerships, collaborations or guest speakers. Explore opportunities for cross-functional collaborations to break down silos and encourage collaboration across departments. By taking a more holistic and innovative approach to problem-solving, your team will be better equipped to innovate successful solutions.

5. Manage Success… and Failure

Growing and sustaining the innovation culture you’ve worked to create requires two key management behaviors. First, you have to acknowledge and celebrate innovations, whether large or small, as they occur. Recognize and reward employees for their contributions in order to incentivize their creativity and reinforce the importance of innovative thinking.

Secondly, but equally important, you have to show tolerance for failure. In a healthy innovation culture, failure is viewed as a part of the learning process that leads to eventual success. Encouraging employees to take risks, learn from failures, and iterate on ideas, promotes resilience and adaptability. Failure to properly manage failure can encourage blaming behaviors, generate negative emotions and stress, and destroy self-esteem of your team members, which will only serve to undermine your innovation culture.

One of the most important, but often overlooked, steps in any project management process is the assessment phase, where you make time to look back at your project to identify useful learnings about what worked and what didn’t. The assessment phase is a great time to recognize and celebrate success. It also provides an opportunity to identify and discuss lessons learned and next steps. By communicating your tolerance for risk and iterative approach to innovation, you help reinforce your innovation culture.

Concluding Notes

In sum, cultivating a culture of innovation is an ongoing process that requires continuous attention and commitment from leadership. By implementing these strategies, managers can create an environment that values innovation, encourages creative thinking, and empowers employees to contribute to the growth and success of the organization.

This is the first in a three-part series that will look at how managers can unlock innovation by building an effective innovation culture. The next part will look at how to frame the questions that will help your team to innovate successfully. The conclusion will offer tips on running a successful staff innovation retreat.


Julian Mercer

Julian Mercer is a retired executive, with more than 30 years’ experience in the technology sector as a leader, manager, consultant, and teacher.

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