Leaders have the unique responsibility to create innovative working conditions for rest of the organization. Their behavior shape the culture that guides employee and customer interactions, ultimately creating (or destroying) value for their organization.
Culture matters, and the actions employees’ exhibit are just as important as the bottom-line results they help to achieve.
As organizations consider how to cultivate innovation internally, they must first define what true innovation is and which behaviors must be practiced to make it a reality. Innovation is more than just thinking creatively. It is the series of events that turn a sparked idea into implemented reality. Ultimately, innovation is the ability to consider alternative possibilities, seek fresh perspectives, and divergently question the current state to achieve something new or enhanced, that creates value.
Across industries, there are key traits that deliberately innovative organizations have in common—all of which can be driven by leadership. We summarize five of these traits below:
- Give employees the time and space to be creative
Just like in our personal lives, if something matters to us, we find a way to carve out time to devote to it. Organizations that value innovation must provide employees the time, space, and resources to be creative. This can be as simple as providing dedicated slack time or investing in training or stretch assignments to create employee growth opportunities. Enabling these practices will help employees feel that it is part of their job to solve problems, even if they do not sit in a formal innovation department.
- Expectations for fail-forward risk-taking are clear
Innovative organizations encourage an acceptance for informed risk-taking. They set informal guard rails so employees know when this behavior is most appropriate – such as small scale projects, pilots, and everyday process improvements. Leaders can incorporate risk-taking into their feedback conversations by discussing how employees achieved results and when they looked for new ways of doing things – even if they were not successful. Leaders should communicate that elements of basic creativity such as observing, thinking, and making connections is part of every employee’s job.
- Encourage employees to make connections beyond their daily work
Employees who see beyond their day-to-day work and have insight into the broader goals of the organization are more likely to be engaged in their work and more inclined to innovate. By getting employees excited and helping them tangibly see how their work impacts other departments, customer interactions, and organizational goals, they are also receiving more perspective and a sense that their work matters.
- Celebrate successes and dedicate time to analyze the lessons learnt
Failure can be valuable in that it enables reflection and the opportunity for future improvement. Organizations that focus on continuous improvement and set aside time to debrief failures are more likely to create psychological safety for employees. Leaders at such organizations never blame individuals (direct or implied) or “blacklist” them from future opportunities. In this way, they can stifle risk aversion while informing lessons for future innovation.
- Leadership walks the talk and leads by example
Innovative organizations have leaders who deliberately mirror the goals of organizational behavior they want to elicit. Culture is not nebulous; culture emerges predictably through cause and effect relationships between behaviors and feedback. And it is not just about other people’s behaviors – it is about how leaders show up each day. The culmination of those behaviors and experiences witnessed by the rest of the organization ultimately drive the accepted norms. Employees who see their leaders productively question and be open to new possibilities are more likely to action those behaviors themselves. Cultures in which ideas are welcomed and employees feel that they will be supported for taking risks within reason—even if they fail—are more prone to being creative.
Raising innovation levels in an organization requires deliberate changes focused on leaders and culture. Demonstrating and rewarding the right behaviors will result in an environment where employees are encouraged to productively disrupt the current state and take fail-forward risks, without impacting productivity and performance.