If we want to scale and grow our businesses, it's important to tap into the innovation and creative decision-making capabilities of everyone. (After all, we can't do everything ourselves.)
Innovation is about unleashing creative thought, looking at things from different angles and coming up with new ways to solve problems. Yet innovation isn't something that can be easily learned in a workshop or seminar. I think it's more effective to lead by example, and show others how to think and act innovatively in daily activities. Doing this can help positively reinforce what you expect from your team, by talking about and recognizing innovation.
Here are seven ways you can model innovation for others in your organization.
1. Embrace social media as a source of inspiration.
Customers and the public often mention problems they'd like solved—or something about a competitor they don't like—on social media. These comments can be helpful because they may trigger ideas about new products your company could create, or ways to do something that your competition hasn't yet figured out.
Consider showing your team that social listening can be an important creative activity. You could regularly pass around links you discover this way and what you think they mean or how your company could leverage them. Your team may soon follow suit.
2. Encourage "skunkworks" projects on your team.
A skunkworks project is a project or team that innovates because they work outside of normal organizational structure. You may want to encourage employees to develop skunkworks projects to come up with innovative products and solutions.
Google is famous for “20 percent time" where employees spend up to 20 percent of their time on side projects. While the concept has been criticized, what's clear is that huge products came out of Google officially encouraging employees to work on side projects.
You may be not be in a position to allow employees to spend a full 20 percent of their time on unstructured innovation, but encouraging creative side projects could have amazing results.
3. Make brainstorming a regular event at your company.
Consider holding brainstorming sessions more frequently. (You can make them fun by ordering in pizza or snacks.)
Use a room with a whiteboard or a virtual whiteboard, such as Microsoft OneNote or Realtime Board, if team members are remote. You can pick a problem to solve and encourage everyone to unleash their ideas. Consider having a rule to keep brainstorming positive: no harsh critiquing of ideas, just come up with new ones. And most importantly, I encourage you to participate yourself so you can walk the talk about innovation and brainstorming.
Even if these sessions don't result in any immediate, tangible innovations, remember it's the act of holding them that's important. Think of creativity as a muscle—the more your people exercise it, the stronger it can become.
4. Lean on your seasoned employees.
Seasoned members of your team may have a wealth of experience, including different ways of doing things they've learned from working in other companies. Remember, their past experience might become your company's next innovation. Consider empowering and encouraging them publicly in meetings to share processes and ideas that may be old hat to them, but “new" to less experienced team members.
When you do that you can show the entire team how much you value new (to your company, at least) ways of doing things. The rest of the team may then get the message that trying new ways is important to you and your company's growth.
5. Solve an internal problem and make a product.
Great entrepreneurs have long had the knack of creating products by solving an internal problem and turning the solution into a revenue generator.
For your company, let's say you need an order processing system and can't find one tailored for your industry. Consider building one for your company. You might be able to package it up and sell it to others, like AccuZIP founder Steve Belmonte.
You could hold product visioning sessions with your team where you discuss how a problem you've already solved could be turned into a product. By discussing the possibility, you can help spur your team to consciously think about new opportunities based on problems they've already solved internally.
6. Recognize and reward innovation in your company.
Do you have a formal employee recognition program, such as “employee of the month"? Perhaps your company is less formal and you simply give “good jobs" in team meetings.
Think about adding innovation to your recognition criteria. I recommend not just rewarding the standard good work, such as great customer service (as valuable as that may be). Consider publicly recognizing employees who solve problems in a unique way, who tweak processes for efficiency or who come up with new product ideas.
7. Celebrate your size as the secret sauce to innovation.
It may seem that your business's size is a disadvantage that forces your team to wear multiple hats and stretches your resources to the breaking point.
But this can also be an advantage. Small companies can be more nimble and able to jump on opportunities. And when you don't have a lot of money and staff resources to throw at a problem, it can force your team to be more creative.
So think about celebrating that. You can talk frequently in a positive way about how your team may not have the resources of larger competitors, but how “we make up for it by being more creative." Consider regularly pointing out small tweaks and changes, and compliment workers on coming up with innovative solutions. You may be surprised by how your acknowledgement of small acts of innovation can actually get your team focused on being innovative. Say it often enough and they may soon come to believe they can innovate.
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