Innovation drives change and change is necessary for continued business success – a well-accepted notion in the realm of leadership. However, just because executives understand the importance of innovation doesn't mean they are always actively encouraging these creative transformations.
A recent study by Harvard Business Review contributors David Sturt and Jordan Rogers revealed that there is a major disconnect between vocal support of innovation and action. Sturt and Rogers surveyed almost 3,500 professionals from the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Germany and India. The response regarding responsibility for innovation was overwhelmingly positive. Of non-managerial participants, nearly nine in 10 strongly felt they should be involved in organizational innovation. Yet only six in 10 claimed to be actively involved.
"Innovation drives change and change is necessary for success."
A hierarchical disconnect
The report found that the biggest disconnect stemmed from innovation at the top compared to the bottom. While many leaders continually voice their support for innovation throughout the organization, very few non-executive players feel they have the tools they need to succeed. This notion was not limited to any particular company size or generation either. Small and big companies alike had this problem and it spanned across workers young and old.
The most cited barrier to legitimate innovation for the average employee was a lack of encouragement or opportunity. According to the study's authors one respondent explained that her superiors do not "seem receptive to new ideas and implementation." Whereas another cited her boss' blinder-vision to any ideas but her own.
Even when leaders provided their lower-ranked staff members with the space to cultivate new ideas, the proposal had no chance to be properly executed. Less than half of participants claimed to have access to money, staff and support to see their ideas come to fruition.
Genuinely cultivating innovation
Empty support of innovation is a major problem for any organization and this issue calls for swift and actionable efforts in order to switch the script. When employees are presented with companies void of support systems for new ideas, they can become increasingly cynical and disillusioned with the company as a whole, explained Sturt and Rogers. Previously engaged and self-motivated workers can lose their drive without the necessary support from executive leaders.
So, how do you ensure you are effectively and truly encouraging innovation at every level of your organizations? Let's take a look.
"No single executive can tackle every angle of innovation alone."
Commit to collaboration: Collaboration is a very useful tool for innovation, explained Fast Company contributor Faisal Hoque. No single executive can tackle every angle of innovation alone. This is why it is so important to encourage and create spaces for multi-level discussions. Every so often bring together a randomly selected group, from managers to executives to writers to marketers. Get a sample from every department at every level and start tackling some core business problems. When company issues are approached purely by executives, the solutions are not often diverse. Getting perspectives from every part of the organization can help craft more innovative and wholesome approaches. Not to mention these group discussions inherently convey a company commitment to real-time innovation.
Become a change agent: Genuinely supporting innovation in the workplace requires a lot of courage from executives. Risks are the backbone of innovation and leaders must be willing to take the plunge. According to Forbes contributor Glenn Llopis, leaders must become change agents in order to create the mindset necessary for innovation. This means constantly challenging team members to look outside the box with improvement as the driving force. When leaders embrace change as the new constant, innovation is sure to follow. Use your personal power to drive this cultural shift.
Communicate genuine support: As with most things in leadership, communication is a critical component to creating a culture of true innovation. This starts with some internal conversations among executives. How have we been promoting innovation in the past? Why or how has this failed? Why or how has this been successful? From there, leaders should craft a clear and concise statement or protocol surrounding innovation. What systems will be in place to support new ideas? Who should people report to when genius strikes? Leaders should also be increasingly vocal when innovation succeeds. Make announcement at company meetings surrounding the best ideas of the month and tie it into a spiel about the importance of innovation for the company. These clear communication tactics can do wonders for the cultivation of innovation.
Restructure the hierarchy: Sometimes the answer to creative transformations lies in simply shaking up organizational structures. Hoque explained that flattening out traditional hierarchical structures immediately eliminates a lot of the road blocks to innovation. Drawn out approval processes and warped communication paths can be removed from the system. If a complete reorganization isn't in the stars for your company, simply try empowering employees to be more independent. Free up some of the corporate policies and allow their ideas to get to the top faster.
Make the time: One of the most powerful ways to genuinely encourage innovation is to simply make the time to listen. Try and set aside an hour once every week where you keep your door open for employees with ideas. Or better yet, seek out one-on-one meetings with employees throughout the month. Sturt and Rogers explained that employees are usually filled with ideas on improvements for the company. Sometimes, all they need is a little prompting. Whatever your approach, make sure you are devoting some time specifically toward innovation from fresh faces.