How to Foster a Culture of Innovation at Work

Now more than ever, creativity and innovative thinking are critical to business success. These days there are so many businesses clamoring for recognition. When it comes to developing innovative ideas that help your company stand out from the pack, it’s either sink or swim.

One of the primary benefits of innovation is that it can improve the efficacy of your company’s internal processes. This can pay off in ways big and small—from minimizing bureaucracy to reducing employee turnover, improving customer service, generating greater publicity, and boosting conversions or sales.

These are outcomes every company desires. In order to obtain them, you need to foster a culture of innovation at work. Here’s how to get started.

Hire the right team.

Innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. And a team comprised exclusively of white males from affluent backgrounds is most definitely a vacuum.

A lot has been said about the diversity problem in tech and countless other industries. The key takeaway is this: Boosting innovation (and reducing inequality) starts with hiring people with truly diverse backgrounds spanning different genders, races, work experiences, socioeconomic, familial, and geographic histories, and so on—and then providing these people opportunities to bounce ideas off each other in an inclusive environment. It’s only by hiring a diverse team that your company will be able to perform in creative ways and cater to the needs of an increasingly diverse consumer base.  

Portland-based innovation consulting firm Ziba practices what I’m preaching. According to Inc., the company has 120 employees hailing from 18 different countries. All told, team members speak 26 different languages. It’s not hard to see the correlation between this diverse team and the fact that Ziba is consistently ranked at the top of its class.   

Invest in passion.

Just as important as hiring a diverse team is hiring a passionate team. Passion is a driving force behind innovation. This is logical: People are going to be inspired to think big, devise improvements, and go above and beyond the call of duty if they’re truly passionate about what they do. It’s important that your screening process include questions about the passions that motivate potential hires.

Once you’ve hired passionate people, it’s equally critical to provide them with opportunities to feed these passions on the job. Few things kill creativity faster than being perpetually overburdened by grunt work or stifled by close-minded managers.

Give it time.

Overwork and overwhelm are massive innovation drains. Team members require down time in order to reflect on their work, let their minds wander, and tinker with new ideas. Periods of free thinking strongly correlate to innovative ideas.

Facilitate creative thinking and brainstorming by making it a policy to give employees free time throughout the week (ideally on a daily basis). Consider offering flexible work hours and remote work options and/or incorporating leisure and recreation areas into your office plans. (This is common practice at companies such as Google and Samsung.) Not only will these spaces encourage downtime, but they’ll also facilitate mingling between coworkers, which can lead to conversations that spark new ideas.

Additionally, make sure to model healthy work-life balance. Employees who routinely burn the midnight oil will become less and less capable of innovative thinking.  

Never, ever lead by fear.

If time and space to think allow for innovation to thrive, fear is the ultimate innovation killer. When employees are punished for taking risks that didn’t pay off, they’re going to become increasingly less willing to take risks.

The issue here is that risk taking is par for the course in innovative companies. Just ask home security firm Frontpoint, which took the risk of deviating from the industry-standard fear-based marketing—and has been met with wildly loyal customers and notoriety among home security consumers. Or consider James Dyson, the inventor of Dyson vacuums, who developed more than 5,100 unsuccessful prototypes before landing on the one that stuck. Can you imagine how things would have differed if he had a boss who punished him after the first try?

When employees are so afraid of punishment that they aren’t willing to take risks, this sustains mediocrity. Ditto for hierarchical workplaces in which the voices of lower-levels employees are dismissed or silenced entirely. The most innovative companies are ones that are led by empathy, courage, inclusiveness, and imagination, not fear.

This means enforcing open-door policies, minimizing bureaucracy, soliciting feedback from employees at all levels of the company—and actually listening to it, encouraging risk taking even if it sometimes goes awry, creating a low-pressure work environment, and celebrating all attempts at innovation, regardless of their size and regardless of whether they fail or succeed.

Put your money where your mouth is.

I mentioned “celebrating innovation” in the previous point, and it’s important to expand on that idea here. Employees who are investing their minds, passion, time, and energy into innovative ideas should be recognized and compensated for these contributions. Otherwise, it’s likely their creative wells will quickly dry up.

Innovative ideas should be rewarded with private and public appreciation, but it shouldn’t stop there. Other rewards could include opportunities for career advancement, meaningful gifts or other perks, and even financial bonuses. This isn’t about incentives or bribery—it’s about properly compensating employees for their contributions to the company’s success.

A culture of innovation must begin at the top if it’s going to suffuse an entire company. While corporate values may be less tangible than annual sales goals, they’re equally as important—if not more so. For a healthier company culture and a healthier company, make innovation a priority by turning these strategies into corporate values.

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