Three Tools To Inspire Innovation From Your Employees
This article originally appeared on Forbes by Mark Murphy, Founder of Leadership IQ
Did you know that it was Google engineers and not the auto industry that started the race to produce a self-driving car? While the concept of an autonomous car dates back to at least the 1920s, it was Google engineers that matched a well-documented human pain: driver error causes millions of traffic deaths, with the building blocks to a solution: Google Maps, Google Earth and Street View. Granted, the technology still has a ways to go before you and I can safely hit the road hands-off, but the point I’m driving here is about innovation. How can today’s leaders motivate employees to embrace the kind of thinking that gives great organizations like Google the first-mover advantage?
Giving employees the permission to learn is the first step in inspiring innovation. Sadly, I still encounter too many organizations that say they want innovation but whose leaders are killing creative thinking. For example, distributing a memo or initiating a command that says, “Here’s what’s happening and here’s what I want you to do about it” prevent people from tapping into their full potential because it's not asking employees to actually think independently; it's not empowering. And more than a third of leaders operate in this way. If you're worried about your own approach, you can take this leadership styles quiz to see if you've got a leadership style that is potentially damaging to empowerment and innovation.
It’s a leader's job to motivate people to go places they wouldn’t otherwise go, but when you tell employees where to go, and how to get there, it squashes the desire to come up with their own great ideas. Now, I’m not suggesting you let everyone roam free, but innovative thinking has to be more than a warm and fuzzy idea. Your people should feel a certain level of pressure when it comes to innovative thinking.
This quote from a Google employee writing on a Google employee blog sums it up nicely: “This [20% Time] isn’t a matter of doing something in your spare time, but of more actively making time for it. Heck, I don’t have a good 20% project yet and I need one. If I don’t come up with something I’m sure it could negatively impact my review.”
Google’s 20% Time isn’t a fun option at Google, for some employees, it’s an expected requirement. There are lots of ways to apply gentle pressure on your people to innovate.
Article reading contests are a great way to encourage employees to go out into the world and procure their own information about the marketplace, your competitors, the quality of the organization’s products and your customers. Start by determining an issue where you want to raise employee awareness (e.g. competitor pricing, customer service, teamwork, etc.) and ask employees to bring in a relevant article on the topic and whoever brings in the best article wins a prize. Let people know they should be prepared to talk about the content of their article. Don’t give up if only a few people participate the first time out. Once word gets around that all it takes to get dinner out or a movie on the company is bringing in an article and being able to talk about it, participation will pick up. Soon you’ll find employees actively engaging in debates about the big issues facing the organization and coming up with new ideas for solutions.
Experience sharing fosters innovation by sharing experiences across management lines. Once a month, gather together your managers, across lines, and ask somebody to present an issue, for example, cutting costs. Then open a group discussion. For example, someone might say, “I tried cutting costs by hiring outside contractors and here are the good and bad lessons I learned…” Listening to someone else’s stories and experiences (instead of being on the receiving end of unsolicited advice) makes us more open to actually hearing and processing the information. It triggers a thought process of “That’s a great idea, I’m going to try that,” or “That really went wrong. I don’t want to do it like that. I’m going to try something different.”
Asking employees to keep a Best Practice Journal is another way to inspire employees to learn by observing what’s happening around them. Ask your people to document examples of great performance as they see it happening out in the world and make time for sharing these observations at regular staff meetings. For example, someone might say, “I observed a manager reviewing the new schedule with two cashiers while I was out shopping the other day. One cashier unhappily said, ‘Wait, so Tory gets to work days and I get stuck with evening hours.’ The manager very calmly replied, ‘We are here to talk about your schedule, not Tory’s.’ I watched the girl’s face twist up for a second and then she just relaxed and went back to the schedule and the manager led her through it, no fight. It was remarkable to see how simple, neat, non-aggressive and effective this approach was and I plan to do the same thing the next time I am in a similar situation.” Documenting and sharing best practices inspires new ways of observing and new avenues of thinking.
The lesson here is the more you empower your people to learn, the more innovative, fulfilled and smarter they’ll become and that translates to greater organizational success.