Three tips to drive team innovation.
I’m sure there’s not a leader out there who would say “I don’t want an innovative team.” But how do you go from having innovation on your wish list to cultivating a thriving culture in your organization that supports team innovation every day? Here are three steps that will help you get there.
Build trust to cultivate ideas
We know that psychological safety is a key attribute in team success, but it’s also critical for innovation. At the core of psychological safety is trust – trust that we can propose ideas without there being backlash or negative repercussions. If that doesn’t exist, you’re not going to get innovative ideas from your staff.
In many organizations, proposing new ideas is inherently risky. People don’t want to be told no, be shot down, or feel like they’re not good enough if others don’t “get it.” You have to think about what messages you’re sending your team when they bring forward new ideas. Are you encouraging it and foster an environment that rewards that risk taking…or are you sending the message that new ideas are not welcomed?
Let me tell you a story: I once worked in an organization that liked to say it was innovative…but what they really meant was that a few of the favorites could be innovative and the rest of the staff needed to stay in line. But one day I saw an opportunity to do something new that I believed could benefit the organization…and even though I wasn’t one of the chosen few, it would have been blatantly unprofessional of me not to propose that we go after it. The problem was time was an issue, and so I couldn’t go through the weeks/months of red tape if I was going to make it work. So I wrote a two page memo outlining the idea, had a few conversations about it with folks, and sent it up the food chain with the express understanding that I needed to get started soon if I was going to make it work.
I didn’t hear anything back for a few days and was about to hit my deadline for being able to move forward, so I pinged the key decision maker and asked if there was any word or questions I could answer. Let’s just say that the response I got back was something I would expect to get if I had murdered a panda in cold blood at an all-staff meeting. So what started as a low risk, small project to try something new and possibly see some huge gains ended with me getting the message loud and clear that my ideas were not welcome and would not be pursued.
Do you think that organization ever got another innovative idea from me again? Of course not. They had shown me that it was not a safe environment, and had broken every layer of trust that existed.
Think carefully about the messages you’re sending people when they bring forward new ideas. You don’t have to say yes to every idea…but how you respond to people matters, and will let them know if future ideas are welcome or if they should be kept to themselves.
Create a safe space to fail
Your people have brought you an innovative idea and you’ve told them to run with it. But what happens if it doesn’t go as planned? Will they get negatively pinged on their performance review for it? The thing about team innovation is that if you’re not failing, you’re probably not really innovating either. Just like your response to their new ideas matters, how you handle failures matters as well – if your team knows that there might be negative repercussions if things take an unexpected direction, what incentive do they have to propose truly innovative ideas in the future?
When you try new ideas, sometimes they’re not going to work out…and that has to be OK. In fact, that’s your opportunity to turn it around and encourage future progress. The only failure is one that we don’t learn from. If your team stumbles, don’t focus on the failure. Instead, focus their attention on what they can learn and how to do it better next time. Then send them off to put those ideas into action and try again. Do this consistently and you’ll send the message that failing is ok, as long as they learn from it, iterate, and improve.
Carve out time for it
Most people don’t have a ton of free time on their hands at work, so if you want to make innovation a priority, you have to build it into the workflow. A lot of people have heard of Google’s famous 80/20 rule for innovation, which allowed their staff to spend 20% of their time on activities they think will benefit the company, but were outside of their formal roles. But what a lot of people don’t realize is that Google started scaling the 80/20 rule back a few years ago, in favor of more focused innovation efforts that involved fewer people. They did this partially because some of their managers had started encouraging their to spend 100% of their time focused on their jobs so that they could meet core productivity metrics that they were being measured on.
Having formal structure around innovation is not a bad thing. Given the choice, the pressing issues of the day will almost always take priority over spending time on the innovative projects that don’t have an upcoming deadline. But we make time for things we care about. A great example of carving out time for innovation is Living Dead Week in Purdue University’s IT office. Twice a year, they take a break from the day-to-day and let their staff spend a week working on a project of their choosing. The culmination is an internal competition where the winner receives bragging rights and a trophy to display on their desk until the next go-round.
Innovation doesn’t just happen
It’s one thing to say we want an innovative organization. It’s another entirely to put the structures and systems in place that will support it. Cultivating innovation long term requires focusing on a higher level.
Learn more about driving team innovation
If you’re not sure where to start for your team or your organization, I can help. Schedule a call today and let’s talk about how we can make some changes to drive team innovation in your organization.
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Learning from the worst boss ever
I’m a firm believer that we can learn as much from the negative influences in our lives as we can from the positive because it’s those negative experiences that make the impact of those behaviors real for us. It’s not theoretical. It’s not something we read in Harvard Business Review. When we experience the impact of their negative behaviors on our own professional lives, those are experiences that have a powerful impact on how we approach others and informs what types of people (managers, leaders, etc..) that we want to be.
So in that spirit, I’m going to tell you the story of the worst boss I ever had…and what I learned. First, let’s learn about her.
She’s was a micromanager extraordinaire.
When I took the job, I told her I was looking for two things in a boss – one that would help get obstacles out of my way, and that I would not work for a micromanager. Of course, she agreed cheerfully – “of course, you’re going to have autonomy and be empowered” – but from the moment I started the job, exactly the opposite was true. At first, I just chalked it up to being the new guy, but as it continued three, six, nine months into the job, it became clear that this was not something that was going to change.
In time, it became clear that she had no interest in empowering me – every time I tried to express an idea to others in the organization, she shut it down immediately without discussion. Every bit of every piece of work that I did was nit-picked and ripped apart by her, down to the smallest detail, based entirely on her personal preference rather than based on best practice or what the data was telling us to do. So instead of being an independent, empowered employee, she wanted me to be an order-taker from her and from others in the organization. As soon as I resigned myself to that, I was rewarded through raises – two within a year – showing that she valued that type of submission.
She set employees up for failure.
Communication from her was basically non-existent, not just with me but with her team, and with other members of the organization. Each of my one-on-one meetings would open with a line from her to the effect of “I don’t have anything to tell you.” Team meetings would be an endless recitation of everyone’s list with no real update about what was going on in the organization. And in larger meetings with the organization, she remained quiet most of the time, apart from discussing things that were directly relevant to what she was doing at the time. All of this resulted in her employees being the dark most of the time on most issues. They weren’t really connected with each other, they weren’t really connected with the organization, and the organization had no idea what they were doing day-to-day, leading to suspicion and gossip from those working in other departments. And decisions large and small were made in a complete vacuum, with no conversation or explanation ever being offered. So at the end of the day, her staff didn’t have the information they needed to do their job, didn’t have the resources they needed to do their job, and didn’t have the organizational support to do it in what was already a very hierarchical organization to begin with.
She lied and manipulated.
I’ve met my fair share of manipulators in my day, but this particular boss had them all beat by a mile. She would say anything she needed to to please the person she was talking to at the time, but rarely had any intention of doing anything other than exactly what she wanted to do. When she got called out on it, it was always someone else’s fault…or there was a story about why it happened a different way…or, oh shoot, she’s just so busy and it slipped her mind. I caught her red handed multiple times, but the one that stands out the most is when she was trying to sabotage me (yes, you read that correctly), I got called into HR one day and received a reprimand for something that never happened. Not something that was misconstrued or misinterpreted or anything type of misunderstanding…this was something that was fictionalized. Note to managers – trust from your team is critical. When you falsely report them to HR for things they didn’t do, you don’t help your cause.
She sought to place blame, rather than empower.
The thing that probably bothered me the most about her was that, instead of focusing on the massive opportunities in front of her and her team, she spent an ungodly amount of energy maneuvering politically within the organization, and instead of trying to build the people around her up through empowerment, she only tried to tear them down. When I finally left, all I could think of was the amount of hours this woman dedicated to beating me down, and wondered how much more I could have achieved if she had used that energy to support me instead.
So, what did I learn from the worst boss I ever had?
First, I think it’s necessary to put aside the blatant sabotage, lying and manipulation, which just puts my former boss in a special category of evil. The vast majority of bosses don’t stoop that low – their mistakes with their team aren’t the results of intentional sabotage. At the end of the day, I decided to channel my experience into something positive. My boss didn’t adapt to the things I said I needed in a manager before I accepted the job…she didn’t communicate…she didn’t empower her staff…and she sure as heck didn’t support us for follow through on her commitments. And it was when I was working for her, that I created my Mindful Management Framework with exactly those principles – Adapt, Communicate, Empower Support. She was a perfect example of everything I believe a manager should never do and helped me solidify my ideal of what a manager should be.
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In this podcast, I take a roundabout way to riff on authenticity at work. I start by talking about how people make decisions (hint: it’s not based on logic and reason), discuss why it’s important to develop genuine, authentic relationships at work, and offer a few examples of things that might get in the way.
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The idea of psychological safety is an easy one – it is an individual’s perception of the consequences of taking an interpersonal risk.
Perception is the key word here. This isn’t something that is dictated from the leadership team. It’s a sense each individual has of the consequences of putting themselves out there.
- Does it pay to speak their mind at a team meeting?
- Should they propose an innovative new idea?
- What happens if they try something new and fail?
- Will leadership listen if they point out relevant data points or potential problems?
Simply put, if people feel as though the organization will be receptive to these things, they will do them. If they think their efforts will be ignored, or worse, that they’ll get in trouble for trying, then they won’t.
Not only has psychological safety been shown to be a critical component to team success, it’s also a vital ingredient for creating an innovative culture.
Encourage diversity of viewpoints
In psychologically safe organizations, there is an inherent tolerance for different viewpoints. There’s always more than one way to skin a cat, and one’s position in the org chart or the boss’s favoritism doesn’t dictate the direction. Instead, questions and discussions are encouraged.
That’s not to say there’s a “rule by committee” mentality that combines the best of all ideas to create a watered-down version of each. That defeats of the point of an innovative organization in the first place! Leadership’s role here is to provide the structure and guidance that supports diverse viewpoints and guides employees to have discussions grounded in nuance, context, and data. The Lean Startup approach is especially relevant here.
Invite ideas from everywhere
Your best ideas are not always going to come from the people who are directly in charge of the area in question. In fact, sometimes they come from the places you may least expect them – those who are new, inexperienced, or have nothing to do with it. Surfacing and evaluating those ideas is especially challenging, since people in those positions may not feel as though their input matters or will be valued. Creating a culture where that type of communication is encouraged and embraced is critical.
Learn from failures
I love this quote from Six Signs of a Broken Corporate Culture:
“In a healthy culture, nobody talks about screwing up or making a mistake, because when you try new things the way people do in healthy organizations, you make mistakes all the time.”
At the core, people can’t feel safe if they fear the consequences of failure. And most of the time, that fear has less to do with the business consequences of the failure than it has to do with the interpersonal consequences – a ding on their performance review, a stern talking to from the boss, the reactions of their co-workers, etc. The external world may not know the difference – it’s the internal environment that losses their minds. If you can create an environment where “failures” are viewed as an opportunity to learn and iterate, rather than play the blame game, you’ll win all around.
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