Steve Jobs said, “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.” Great point. The problem I see in organizations is that few leaders create an environment that encourages innovation. I hear executives say, “We need to be more innovative! We can’t keep doing things the same way!” The message makes its way to employees who scratch their heads wondering where the switch is that will trigger their inner innovator.
If you want people to be innovative, foster an environment where innovation can thrive. Here are three tips to get started.
Give employees context for why innovation is necessary. It’s Executive and Senior leadership’s job to paint a compelling vision and business case for change. There are people who embrace new ideas and processes and just as many people who are content to keep doing things the way they’ve always done it because they see no reason to change.
Here’s some context for why public sector innovation is critical. In Alberta, we have long ridden the boom and bust cycle of a resource economy. Historically the busts have been blips and the good times returned along with our free-spending ways. Trust me. I worked for the Alberta government for 18 years. As long as resource revenue kept rolling in there was no reason to do anything differently except increase spending. Alberta’s new fiscal reality is a long-term trajectory of low oil prices complicated by opposition to building pipelines. This bleak scenario combined with an aging population, greater globalization and rapidly evolving technology are forcing the public sector to be more innovative.
If you want people to be innovative, leaders need to build trust. Be specific about the context for why innovation is necessary. Without it, employees experience what’s called an Amygdala Hijack. They resort to their reptilian brain where the flight, fight or freeze response kicks in. They are in a very low state of trust. They are unable to look to the future because they are consumed by self-preservation. The stress hormone, cortisol, is unleashed and you start to see toxic behaviour like gossip, rumours, resistance and sabotage.
Innovation requires people to use their pre-frontal cortex or their executive brain, and that requires a high level of trust. In her book, “Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results”, Judith Glazer describes conversational essentials that lead to high levels of trust and activation of the pre-frontal cortex. I’ll reference just a few here. Glazer talks about listening to connect which requires putting your own agenda aside, putting yourself in another person’s shoes and helping them explore their perceptions. Ask questions you don’t have answers to. It’s easier to put your agenda and judgement aside when you are in a state of exploration with others. Be open to influence. Addicted to being right is a sure way to block discovery and exploration of uncharted territory.
Employees are so busy doing what they’ve always done, they don’t have time to be innovative nor do they feel they have permission to be innovative. Help them get off the hamster wheel by creating space and opportunity to co-create with others.
Steve Johnson, the author of “Where Good Ideas Come from: the Natural History of Innovation” describes the establishment of European coffee houses as one of the most innovative periods in history. The coffee houses drew together academics, merchants, clergy, politicians and artists engaging in debate and exploration of issues and ideas. I worked with many people over the years who thrive in a transformational environment. They want to connect and collaborate with others. Do these natural innovators a favour and give them the space and time for these interactions to occur.
Innovation is a hot mess of risk, heart, intellect, luck and confidence to move past the inevitable failures. Great advances rarely, if ever, happen on the first try. It can take years and the contributions of many people to succeed, but for those who have a passion for innovation, leaders can encourage the process by providing context, building trust and providing space.
For more information on my workshops on innovation, change resiliency, team building and leadership you can message me on LinkedIn or email me at Tracy@bravebirdsstudio.com.