There is no arguing that in today’s marketplace companies must innovate to survive. There is more pressure now than at any other time in history for innovation, especially if companies want to be industry leaders. This is because rapidly changing technology is continually driving changes in markets and shifting trends in customer behavior and expectations.
The most effective way to stay competitive is to make innovation a habit throughout the company. Innovation should be an initiative that all departments share, and it must be driven by leaders in order to create staying power. Innovation is for everyone in the company. It’s not just for product development, and it’s not just for the creative department.
In my work, I have seen that when innovation is practiced in each department—and at every level—it makes a significant impact on competitiveness and the bottom line. I watched a stalled company implement creative free time and benefit handsomely from the patents those “free-time” projects produced. I helped a company that was comfortable in its industry develop a single idea that not only revolutionized its own product, but also had wide-ranging application for other industries and made a significant profit, just by selling use of the idea. I helped one of the largest universities in Africa deploy mandatory innovation in every department, resulting in over 120 process improvements that are projected to deeply impact the organization’s budget. Each of these noteworthy business successes happened because leaders valued innovative thinking.
A companywide shift toward innovative thinking causes a ripple effect and employees begin to see possibilities and opportunities for improvement where they weren’t looking before. Innovation inspires thoughtfulness, efficiency, and positive change at every level of the organization.
So how can you make your leaders more innovative? It takes more than just training; it’s a mixture of soft skills mentoring, cultural dedication to the practice, consistency, and reinforcement. Here are five ways to help your leadership team champion innovation.
Help them develop self-awareness. Why? Because self-awareness allows people to better understand how and where they best perform. When it comes to innovation, there are six required stages: identify, define, develop, verify, deploy, and scale. Once people understand their talents, skills, and passions, they will be able to ascertain where they best fit in these stages. We have developed an Innovation Fitness assessment™ that measures 61 traits and tells you which stages are your sweet spots (and where you will actually hinder the process). Your leaders will better understand their unique contribution to innovation once they are able to see the results on paper.
Allow them to take risks. Encourage your leaders to be courageous in their efforts and ideas. Create an environment where taking risks and learning through failure are commonplace. Consider a reward system for trying new things, for coming up with ideas, and for innovative thinking. Nobody takes risks for the sake of taking risks. People typically take risks because they are trying to learn, do, or prove something. Make that kind of behavior the ideal.
Support their intellectual growth. Urge your leaders to learn. Continuous study naturally leads to broadening perspectives and the stimulation of critical thought. The most significant evidence of intellectual growth is the kind of questions you begin to ask and the application of your new knowledge in different ways. Learning also spurs curiosity and deeper understanding. Encourage your leaders to read books and articles, help them outline a course of study or a series of thought leaders to follow, work on intellectual exercises together as a team, or assign topics for team members to study and present to the group.
Encourage them to embrace creativity. Creativity comes in many forms. It’s not only artistic expression. Creativity is simply turning imagination into something real. It’s seeing things from a different point of view, finding connections between ideas, and generating solutions to problems and opportunities. It’s easy to see why creativity is essential for innovation. The truth is that everyone has the potential for creativity, but we often prohibit creative thought because we fear subpar results or judgment.
Challenge them to develop an innovation system. Innovation doesn’t just happen by chance; it requires structure. An innovation system is the methodology needed to think through problems and to ask the necessary questions along the way. It will be different for every leader. We all think differently and approach problems from different angles. But regardless of how you look at it, you must systemize it. An effective innovation system allows you to document ideas and actions, bring people along on the process, and at the end of the day see results.
To be innovative as an organization, you need to invest not only in products, process, and marketing position, but you also need to invest in developing innovative leaders and creating a culture that looks for continuous improvement. This type of encouragement causes people to be more involved in the overall success of the team and the company.
Innovation should be the responsibility of every leader in your company. It doesn’t matter if your company has a team that is devoted to innovation, there is room for improvement in every department. Even if you aren’t creating a new product or service, you can always be working on other types of innovations. Everyone should be invited and be expected to contribute in the innovation agenda of your organization.