Fostering Innovation in the Workplace

May 15, 2013

Today there is a great deal of talk about the need for more employee collaboration. This is because collaboration can lead to creative solutions and is directly tied to innovation.

Though we often attribute innovative ideas to a single person, rarely do these ideas occur in isolation. Finding novel solutions to problems or creating new market opportunities requires people sharing and discovering through direct and open interaction with others.

The physical environment can certainly play a role in encouraging innovation. Here are some examples of what organizations are currently doing.

  • Google is designing their new corporate headquarters to maximize casual employee conversations, which is exactly how they came up with innovations like Gmail and Street View.
  • Zappos created a new headquarters and deliberately provided employees with smaller workspaces and break rooms, not only to save money, but to encourage people to physically bump into each other. They hope this will lead to more spontaneous and productive interactions.
  • Many companies are also providing common work areas that enable employees to mingle and chat with the hope that more ideas will result.
  • National Public Radio has “Serendipity Days” where employees from different departments come together to deliberately think about new ideas and projects over a two-day period. The focus is on getting employees to work with people who they wouldn’t normally work with as a way to alter their current thinking and broaden perspective.
  • Some companies are asking employees to swap jobs for a few months in order to better understand each other’s work, and also seek different approaches to existing ways of doing things.
  • Yahoo recently put a ban on telecommuting as way to encourage incidental encounters in hallways and the cafeteria that would likely not occur if these employees worked from home.

Clearly these physical interventions may create an environment where people can collaborate and innovate together, but innovation also requires getting the right people together and having a culture that encourages the innovating process.

Here are some ideas on how organizations can encourage innovation:

  1. Hire the right people. Look for a cultural fit as well as passion in the people you hire. Don’t underestimate the importance of emotional intelligence, which is vital for effective relationships, but may not show up on resumes. Seek out curious people who look beyond presenting problems and find sustainable solutions.
  2. Foster a team approach. Don’t let an individual’s desire for career advancement override the team’s ability to succeed. Remember the African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
  3. Enable brainstorming time. This means not shooting down what may appear at first to be a bad idea. Real innovation occurs when people are free to ask stupid questions, challenge assumptions, and try out what hasn’t been done before.
  4. Encourage risk taking. True creativity requires the opportunity to make mistakes and not be penalized for it. This means organizations must not only tolerate mistakes or false starts, but encourage them as the natural process for reaching innovative success.
  5. Foster a playful environment. Innovation demands that people follow their interests and play with ideas that may fall outside traditional thinking. While this may at times appear silly and unproductive, it is the exact environment where ideas can grow.
  6. Welcome diversity and conflicting opinions. Many organizations are conflict avoidant; they are also less likely to be innovative. That’s because coming up with new ideas is often messy and requires people to see and hear what is beyond their current point of view. Stay in the mess in order to let the best ideas surface.

Outside the workplace, there are organizations like Maker Faire that encourage innovation. “Maker Faire features innovation and experimentation across the spectrum of science, engineering, art, performance and craft.” In other words, it encourages people from many disciplines to take something old and make something new.

Regardless of the industry, organizations that provide products or services need to continually innovate in order to gain or maintain a competitive edge. Fostering an environment that encourages collaboration with a corporate culture and policies that support it can enable this innovation to occur.


Innovation through Trust and Accountability

June 8, 2012

There’s a great deal of discussion today about the need for innovation in business. Innovation is what fueled the enormous growth of American companies throughout the last century, leading to the proliferation of the telephone, television, and automobile, and made space flight possible.

Innovation is essential to revolutionizing the way we live and help maintain a competitive edge in the marketplace. But this innovation requires fostering a workplace environment that includes employer trust and employee accountability.

Apple, with a market capitalization of more than $500 billion, is arguably the most valued and innovative company in the world. Their continual innovation has propelled Apple’s astounding profitability.

In the same way the Macintosh revolutionized the personal computer back in 1984, the iPod, iPhone and iPad created huge markets. These other products may not have been the first to market, but they were designed, manufactured and marketed in such a way that everyone had to have one.

Much credit has been attributed to the late Steve Jobs, but more than likely it was the culture he and others created at Apple that enabled this kind of innovation.

This is because Apple, unlike any other company, embedded the encouragement of creativity and “thinking different” into their corporate culture. This was no small task as creativity is all too often now left to fewer and fewer individuals in school and business.

Sir Ken Robinson, a leader in the development of education, creativity and innovation, says that if you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original. He contends that our educational system frightens us out of being wrong, and the willingness to be wrong is absolutely necessary in order to foster creativity.

In his book “Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World,” Tony Wagner writes about the common characteristics of learning cultures at many schools and programs he profiled that offer innovative learning. They are all organized around the values of:

  • collaboration
  • multidisciplinary learning
  • thoughtful risk-taking, trial and error
  • creating
  • intrinsic motivation: play, passion, and purpose

David Liddle, co-founder of Interval Research, speaks of the fundamental characteristics of a creative organization. “It is first and foremost a place that gives people freedom to take risks; second it is a place that allows people to discover and develop their own natural intelligence; third, it is a place where there are no ‘stupid’ questions and no ‘right’ answers; and fourth it is a place that values irreverence, the lively, the dynamic, the surprising, the playful.”

The willingness of individuals to be wrong and management’s acceptance of them being wrong in service of innovation is critical to bring on real innovation.

Steve Jobs and the other Apple employees were able to see beyond where the technology and market was in the present in order to envision and deliver something entirely new. I’m sure there were plenty of false starts and jettisoned projects along the way, but this didn’t result in a reduced research and development budget. Instead, Apple embraced those setbacks as necessary in the natural order of innovation.

Google is another example of a company who provides engineers with space and time to play with ideas. Their 20 percent time program has so far resulted in Gmail, Orkut, Google News and Adsense as well as many internal projects.

All companies could encourage innovation not only in research and development, but in sales, marketing, operations, and even human resources. But this requires a great deal of trust for management and accountability for employees.

When management trusts employees enough to give them the freedom and opportunity to ask stupid questions, take risks, play with ideas, and not suffer from being wrong, then there is an environment that fosters true innovation. And when employees are held accountable for eventual results, they are no longer just doing a job but helping to make a difference in their company, themselves and quite possibly the world.

Bringing more trust and accountability to the workplace can provide an environment that enables innovation to occur. And that is a good thing for everyone.