You’re Killing Innovation

What do Nike, Amazon and Square all have in common? They were named as the top three most innovative companies for 2013.

How did they do it? They hired the right people and created the right culture to drive that innovation. Day after day, these companies develop great ideas and successful new products because their people:

  • are able to work well together;
  • think outside the box; and
  • work in an environment that fosters their creativity and innovation.

So why doesn’t every company innovate like these guys? Mostly because it’s easier said than done. Though many business leaders make innovation a goal, their corporate cultures and people work against it.

Does your culture support innovation–or kill it?

Ask yourself these questions to determine if your culture is innovatively dysfunctional:

  • Are jobs delegated effectively? It’s important to assign jobs to the right employees. When jobs are not matched to employees’ strengths, they are unable to do their best work.
  • Do employees have the freedom they need? If managers constantly look over their employees’ shoulders and micromanage, it sends the message that independent thought isn’t valued. Help employees set realistic goals for their work. But whenever possible, give them the freedom to accomplish tasks as they see fit. In the process, they may come up with new and better ways to solve problems and get things done.
  • Are work teams diverse? Hiring people who all share the same values, thought processes and ideas does make life less stressful. No one bumps heads. However, it is during this respectful “bumping of heads” that the most innovative ideas are often formed.
  • Is failure and acceptable risk-taking tolerated? To create a culture that fuels innovation, outline parameters for taking calculated risks. And when employees fail, don’t punish them–help them learn from their mistakes.
  • Is your work environment positive? Bullying, gossiping and the like zap the creative energy right out of a company. If your culture is toxic, commit to turning it around. Involve your biggest offenders in developing a more supportive work environment.

Identify “Innovation Killers”

An unsupportive culture is only one half of the problem. As you work to improve your culture, you also need to identify and turn around (or remove) toxic, divisive employees who undermine innovation by:

  1. Laughing at or being suspicious of new ideas.
  2. Shunning or ridiculing anyone who identifies a problem.
  3. Practicing public humiliation and making “lessons” out of those who fail.
  4. Believing that innovation is the domain of only a special group of “trusted advisors.”
  5. Using phrases such as “You cannot do that because we have always done it this way.”
  6. Thinking innovation is the same thing as R&D.
  7. Focusing more on process than outcome.

Turn Things Around

Innovative thought and behaviors are not innate; they can be learned. To do so, you simply need the correct equipment–an innovative culture and the right people.

Start by hiring smart, talented and passionate people (whether or not they’re carbon copies of your management team). Place them in jobs that play to their strengths–allowing them to contribute to the success of their team and your entire organization.

As you bring on people who will help you create an environment where innovation thrives, lead by example–and silence the killers:

  1. Focus on the outcome–not the process. Present a picture of the future–the outcome desired and the strategic goals–and then hold your employees accountable for developing the plan to get you there.
  2. Cover your team’s back. Create employee relationships based on trust and shared confidence. Make it clear to employees that you are their biggest advocate, and that they will not be punished for trying something that did not work.
  3. Challenge the status quo. Respectfully address the “elephant in the room.” Discuss your business’ toughest problems with employees. Challenge employees to share new thoughts and teach them to disagree without being disagreeable.
  4. Inspire. Find ways to elevate employees’ thinking above their daily responsibilities. Brainstorming, team-building activities, thought-provoking information–whatever motivates them. When people feel inspired by you, they are more inclined to “go the extra mile” on a project. Often, that “little something extra” is what produces innovation.
  5. Forbid whining, limit criticism and encourage “find a way” behavior. Instead of punishing mistakes as a way to promote success, celebrate employees who find solutions to problems. Make them heroes instead of zeroes.