Change your organisational culture to create the space for innovation

Dr Tim London reveals three mistakes you might be making that are hampering creative thinking.

Read just about any organisation’s website, job advertisements, or promotional materials and it’s almost guaranteed that somewhere in there will be references to them being “innovative”, “creative”, “cutting edge”, or “out of the box”. There is then usually a tie-in to the Fourth Industrial Revolution and how they are primed to tackle the complexity, complications, and dynamism inherent to the current environment. 

These statements are often, of course, far more aspirational than they are statements of actual practice; it’s not for want of creating an innovative environment, it’s most frequently because people in key leadership positions have fallen into some easy traps that lead them to believe they are making progress when really their organisation is running very much as it has over the preceding years or even decades. 

While certainly not an exhaustive list of ways in which building an innovative environment fail, here are some crucial ones that frequently rear their ugly heads.

Mistaking previous experience for training
In many job advertisements, the above-mentioned statement on how important creativity and innovation are to the company is followed by a person specification that demands “X years of experience”, with “X” often being somewhere between five and 15. While experience, of course, does not mean someone lacks creativity, it also is certainly no guarantee they possess it, either. While experience may be help people gain a depth of knowledge that enables creativity, that same experience may have ingrained a way of doing things that has fossilized over time. 

This can rear its head when leaders put their “most experienced people” on a new, innovative project and then find it making little change to existing practices because their years of experience don’t automatically translate into new ideas.

Related to this, leaders may get frustrated when they order their highly experienced and capable team to do something new, only to find out that little to nothing has actually changed. While resistance or lack of understanding may be the culprits, it can often be the case that innovation and change may not be skill sets or mindsets that have been useful to them in their careers to this point. 

Leaders must therefore understand their team’s skills and experiences better, so they can ensure to support those who are taking the risks of innovation on for the first time. To be clear, the same holds true for your younger or less experienced team members: don’t simply expect your younger staff to have innovative ideas and approaches simply because they’re young! 

Not building a culture of trust and empowerment 
While one-off ideas can happen even in the worst of environments, building a culture of innovation means increasing the number and types of new ideas that surface within the organisation. Central to this is ensuring that people have a sense of “psychological safety”. This may look differently in each organisation, but at the root of it, it will mean that people feel that there is a sense of mutual trust as well as a feeling of being empowered. 

These two conditions are essential for innovation to thrive as the potential for new ideas to fail, generate negative feedback, or make people feel uncomfortable is very high. In the face of that, an environment that creates a safe space for risk taking, and encourages people to step out of their comfort zones to try new things, is essential to actually ensuring an innovative environment can grow and thrive.

This can be hard to put your finger on, but innovation is unlikely to develop in organisational cultures where people express sentiments like “that’s not my job”, have bonus structures that are tied closely to achieving short-term outcomes, or where there is a strict sense of hierarchy when it comes to who is listened to in meetings. A key part of this environment is the fear of failure, where trying something new is likely to lead to “personal” failure that can come through as ridicule from colleagues, being skipped over for promotions or bonuses, or some other potential downside that may outweigh the potential benefits of the innovation being successful. 

Leaders must support all of their team to try to be innovative, even when a decent percentage of those new ideas will not be actionable; getting frustrated with one failed idea or one teammate whose ideas don’t pan out multiple times makes it clear to everyone else that the risk to themselves for failing at innovation is possibly not worth it.

Not providing time and space to come up with innovation
Finally, a note that ties some of these issues together with a practical tip for leaders who want to help nurture innovation in their organisation: the two most important ingredients you can add are time and space. 

Yes, at some point you’ll need to fund new ideas to prototype new ventures, rearrange workflows to take advantage of new ways of working, or hire new staff to launch a new product or service, but the biggest leverage point for creating innovation is actually making the space for it. 

If your team is working flat out all the time just to do what they already do, where are they actually going to come up with new ideas to change things for the better? If there is no time to informally share ideas or reflect on new pieces of information, how will any of your people have time to come up with innovations?

This is not, to be clear, a matter of buying pool tables and air hockey for the break room, while moving to an open plan office with lots of couches. These things can be part of a strategy, but will not in and of themselves create the space for innovation. Be explicit that you are trying to make the environment more conducive to coming up with new ideas (while not neglecting the other pressing work facing your team!). Ask for input from people about what would help them come up with individual or shared new ideas. Build in time for sharing new ideas at existing meetings or in new spaces that don’t make innovation a new burden, but a fundamental part of the day to day life of the organisation. 

Just ensure that your actions directly support your words: yes, you must first speak about how innovation is essential and your aims to make it more common in your organisation; if you fail to provide the actions and tangible supports to innovation that your people can see on a regular basis, you’re almost certainly going to be stuck with “business as usual”.