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  • Writer's pictureKatie Inouye

Can you inspire innovation? Do you want to?

As a business owner, consultant, instructional designer, and someone who cares about improving safety in my industry - I sometimes wonder about how we can inspire others to be innovative to improve. I know, it's cliché.

But, I had a meeting this week that made me think about innovation. We say we want people to be innovative... but do we really? And if we do, how do organizations create a culture that supports innovation.

Does this sound familiar?

In a meeting to discuss one of the projects we are working on, it was like there were two separate conservations happening and each group wasn't quite hearing the perspective of the other. A couple of people were discussing the dynamics of the project and if the project made sense as chartered; the other was identifying obstacles and brainstorming how to push through them. The first group was considering if the project could have a bigger organizational impact if the team reevaluated the overall strategy; the second felt the pressure from leadership to complete the project with all the given constraints that were provided no matter what the obstacles.

In the end, it was clear the majority felt the need to push through. I am sure the project will be completed on time and meet its project goals but is it meeting the organizational goals?

What are we asking employees to do when we ask them to be innovative?

Simply, innovation is introducing new processes, methods, ideas, and products. And in order for companies to be innovative, they must support a work culture that is innovative. But introducing new ideas can be tough, it takes courage, and let's face it, most of the time, people don't like change. Think about it, do leaders in your organization want employees to really question processes and methods to improve the company? Or, do they just want employees to keep their heads down and get the job done?

I just re-read Simon Sinek's book the Infinite Game. If you haven't read it, I highly recommend it. Simon Sinek's perspective that companies should be invested in an infinite game versus a finite game is compelling. This is just to say, companies and leaders should build a company that strives for achieving its just cause or purpose not just working towards finite/short-term goals of building shareholder value and driving performance.

Not that shareholder value and other short-term goals are not important, but it cannot be the only force behind what an organization does. Why? Because sometimes you have to sacrifice short-term goals to achieve long-term ones. Sometimes you have small failures on the road to success. And when those small failures or steps backward occur, that is okay because the important thing is the overall progress forwards towards something bigger.

Back to my example of the meeting I was in this week. A couple of people were questioning if the short-term goals were the right goals. Yes, the project would be successful based on meeting deadlines and the defined deliverables. But, would it really be successful if it was not supporting the longer-term goals of the organization? Honestly, it seemed like most people in the meeting didn't care if they were the right goals; their main concern was meeting the goals that they were given because that is how their success was going to be measured.

Again, innovation requires courage because it is tough to be that person in the room to question the status quo; and in some organizations, the stakes are too high and employees will not risk being that person. But, if we don't question current processes, methods, and ideas, how will we ever really improve? More than that, we could easily set ourselves up for ultimate failure because we could be meeting short-sighted goals while hurting the larger organizational initiatives.

If we really want employees to be innovative, how can we support new ideas?

Easier said than done, here are some steps leaders can take to a team and organization that allows for innovation:

  • Listen when employees speak up and share ideas. Even if the idea cannot be acted on, how leaders respond is critical in not stifling future innovation.

  • Reward calculated risks and do not punish mistakes. Of course, it is not okay to be reckless, but change is inherently risky. And mistakes can be worthwhile if we learn from them.

  • Change how you view success to include long-term thinking. Encourage employees to think about the long-term impact of ideas including the impact on safety and customers as well as profit.

"Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new." Albert Einstein
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