5 steps leaders can take to boost innovation in teams

Most leaders unknowingly kill innovation by over-managing processes that lock teams into doing things the same way they’ve been done before

While organisations are seeking to be more innovative, most leaders unknowingly kill innovation by over-managing processes that lock teams into doing things the same way they’ve been done before, according to an expert in the area.

“Most managers don’t understand the innovation process and it scares them,” said David Sturt, author of New York Times bestseller Great Work: How to Make a Difference People Love and ‎EVP of global employee recognition company O.C. Tanner.

“Leaders worry that if they invite their teams to innovate, they will lose control of their processes, things will break, and their quality and operating results will suffer.”

Sturt said this is why leaders give lip service to innovation, but in practise they are actually quite resistant to it.

“Employees become cynical when they hear their senior leaders asking for innovation but they see no support from their mid-level managers.”

Another barrier to innovation, particularly in larger organisations, is low-risk tolerance.

“When an organisation’s culture becomes rigid and risk-averse, few employees will have the courage or energy to try something new, and innovation suffers,” he said.

“Most managers don’t understand the innovation process and it scares them”

Few workers feel like they are given the permission, the support and the tools to innovate, observed Sturt, who said extensive research from the O.C. Tanner Institute found five simple things leaders can do to model and support innovation within their teams.

1. The first is to ask the right question and to encourage and challenge team members to be much more thoughtful about the questions they are asking.

“Good questions serve as powerful guides to innovation,” said Sturt.

“When people are asking the right questions about what they can do that others would love, new ideas start flowing and great work naturally follows.”

2. “The second is to actually go and see for yourself,” said Sturt.

“People who actively go and look at their work from fresh and new perspectives are the ones who discover new possibilities and valuable new ways of doing things.”

3. The third thing leaders can do to support and promote innovation is to encourage team members to talk to their “outer circle” to get fresh ideas.

“This involves having conversations with people they are not currently talking to – people in other departments, with different life experiences, and very different perspectives,” Sturt explained.

4. Once team members have found some new ideas, Sturt said leaders should help them experiment with those ideas before making changes.

“Great leaders help their teams see their work not as a fixed process, but as a fluid ‘mix’ of elements that can be continually adjusted,” he said.

“This promotes experimentation by virtually exploring which new elements to add, what to remove, and how to check for fit between ideas and elements.”

5. Finally, after making changes, Sturt said leaders can help their teams see their work all the way through until they can measure the difference made.

“Applying these five simple innovation skills not only enables more effective innovation, but also serve as protective guardrails for the innovation process,” he said.

“HR leaders must be deliberate about integrating innovation into their organisations’ cultures”

There are a number of implications in this for HR leaders, according to Sturt, who stated that when companies lose their ability to innovate, they fail.

“Usually not overnight, but gradually they lose the engagement of their people, their culture stagnates, and they can’t seem to achieve their financial goals, then they struggle to keep their best people from leaving,” he said.

“HR leaders must be deliberate about integrating innovation into their organisations’ cultures.”

HR can help create a work environment where their people have the permission, knowledge, and support to develop new ideas and make a difference through their work.

“HR leaders can teach the five skills to managers,” he said.

“They can also provide short innovation jump start sessions where team members can learn the five skills as they begin a new improvement initiative, providing an ideal setting to apply the skills immediately.”

HR leaders can also model the skills themselves and mentor others on the initiatives they are responsible for.

“And they can make sure they are sharing the stories of innovation in company meetings and town halls,” he said.

“They can also ensure that after successful projects people are publicly recognised so that everyone can see and hear how valuable innovation is to the organisation.”

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