Many forward-thinking organizations, these days, are launching all kinds of initiatives to crank up innovation. Their intention is a good one, but their execution is often not. While there's nothing inherently wrong with "organizational initiatives," they often end up being overly complicated, vague, and painfully impersonal. They may look good on paper, but real innovation doesn't happen on paper - it happens in another dimension - the human dimension -- the realm of authentic interaction, not theoretical interfacing.
Towards that end, I invite you to consider another, more informal approach - simple, no-cost ways of radically increasing the odds of the people you work with becoming proactive, inspired, and successful innovators on the job.
1. BE CURIOUS: One thing is certain: aspiring innovators are on to something. If you are interested in increasing their odds of success, your first task is to find out what, precisely, has captured their attention. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it greatly enlivens the person on the brink of a new possibility.
2. LISTEN DEEPLY: People with a new idea often need to express what they're thinking in order to fully understand what they're conjuring. Listening is the main way you can help -- not so you'll have something wise to say in response, but so you can create a safe haven for others to explore the nuances of their new ideas.
3. ASK POWERFUL QUESTIONS: You may be someone's boss or have multiple degrees, but that doesn't mean you have all the answers. Indeed, when it comes to sparking innovation, asking questions - at the right time and in the right way - is more important than giving advice. It is often the only thing you need to do.
4. REFRAME THE CHALLENGE: As an innovation catalyst, one of the biggest contributions you can make is to ensure that the innovators in your life have clearly defined their projects. Probe. Poke. Pester. See if there is another, more elegant way they can define their goal - starting with the words "How can I?"
5. ELIMINATE BUREAUCRATIC OBSTACLES: Innovators have enough to worry about without having to navigate the often Rube Goldberg-like maze of corporate systems and the ever-changing marketplace. Be their advocate. Demystify the roadblocks. Identify what's in their way and do what you can to eliminate the obstacles.
6. PROVIDE RESOURCES: Carpenters need tools. Hikers need backpacks. Musicians need instruments. Innovators? This, that, and the other thing. Your task? To identify the resources they need and see what you can do to locate them. Funding? Software? Collaborators? An introduction to movers and shakers?
7. COACH: Even the best athletes in the world perform better when they have the support of someone on the "sidelines" who knows the game and how to spark their potential. If you want to spark innovation in others, know that you will need to be a coach from time to time. But first, you need permission.
8. GIVE FEEDBACK: Aspiring innovators go back and forth between being overly intoxicated with their new ideas and being overly sober. Immersed in their own creative process, they lose perspective, with only the sound of their thoughts for company. What they need is timely feedback. And they need it from you.
9. DO THE BREAK DANCE: Committed innovators have a tendency to obsess about their projects. Not only does "all work and no play" become their mantra, they often leave little time for rest and renewal. Sometimes, the best thing an innovator can do is nothing - and you can help by reminding them, from time to time, to take a break, chill, and do something different for a change.
10. GO BEYOND THE CALL OF DUTY: Attempting to create something new is rarely easy. It's messy, frustrating, and often requires a big dose of the heroic. If you are going to be someone's "innovation ally", know that one of your jobs is to go beyond "business as usual" and extend your support in surprising and extraordinary ways.
11. CELEBRATE SMALL WINS: One challenge with trying to innovate is that it takes a lot of time. Results often don't show up for years. As you can imagine, this can be deflating. The remedy? Regularly acknowledge "small wins" - positive results - no matter how small. As Tom Peters once said, "Celebrate what you want to see more of."
12. REINFORCE THE VISION OF SUCCESS: Anyone attempting to create something new has a tendency to get lost in details and doubts - often not seeing the "forest for the trees". They lose the big picture. The remedy? At every turn of the bend, get the innovators in your life talking about their wishes, dreams, and hoped for outcomes.
13. TELL INSPIRING STORIES: When innovators get stuck, it's usually because of "self-talk" - their internal critic that thrives on doom and gloom. You can counter this phenomenon by telling stories with the power to replace self-talk - true tales of your own creative breakthroughs or the tales of others who have gone beyond obstacles to manifest magic in the world.
14. QUOTE FROM THE INNOVATION MASTERS: Sometimes a single word or phrase is all an aspiring innovator needs to get their mojo back. Or a soundbyte from someone they respect - a person who's "been to the mountain" and distilled what they learned down to a quotable quote. Here are some examples: Creative thinking. Innovation. Vision. Beginning. Possibility. Risk taking.
15. MODEL THE SPIRIT OF INNOVATION: It's hard to spark innovation in others if the spark is not alive inside of you. Not only will the aspiring innovator see right through you, they won't take any of your council to heart - even if it's true. Your responsibility? Walk your talk. Practice what you preach. If you don't, you're just wasting your time - and everyone else's, too.
16. DECREASE THE FEAR OF FAILURE: One of an innovator's biggest triggers is their fear of failure. Your mission is to help them reframe their concept of "failure" and, instead, see it as a progression of noble experiments - opportunities for feedback so they can course correct, continue learning, and be as resilient as possible. Send them this list to start the conversation.
17. GROUND: Aspiring innovators often have their heads in the clouds, an important place to inhabit from time to time, but it is only half the story. Innovators also need to have their feet on the ground. You can help by getting them to plot in specific days and times, on their calendar, to work on their innovation project. You can also ask them to commit to specific deliverables and "by when" dates.
18. BE THE COUNT OF ACCOUNTABILITY: In the heat of battle, aspiring innovators often make promises they do not keep. Or, afraid of breaking their promises, never make them in the first place. If budding innovators work alone, there is no one around to notice this phenomenon. Your task? Ask them what they want to beheld accountable for and then check in at regular intervals.
19. EXPAND THEIR SUPPORT NETWORKS: One thing you don't want to do is establish a co-dependent relationship with innovators seeking your support. It's not only dumb, it's unsustainable. The alternative? Encourage them to enroll support from their existing network of friends and colleagues - people they can depend on for input, feedback, and encouragement.
20. CHECK IN FROM LEFT FIELD: If you really want to spark innovation in others, pick up the phone from time to time and call. Actually talk to the person. Ask how they're doing. Listen. Stir the soup. See what they need. Assuming you are trusted, your out-of-the-blue contact will awaken, encourage, and inspire - helping those on the cusp of a breakthrough to stay on track and on fire.
Mitch Ditkoff is the Co-Founder and President of Idea Champions, an innovation consultancy and training company based in Woodstock, NY. He is a much sought after keynote speaker on how organizations can establish robust, sustainable cultures of innovation.