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How to Cultivate an Environment for Innovation

Innovation is important to every field but can be a vague and aspirational goal. Yet, it is crucial to foster this behavior for success in the fast-paced world of digital change. For example, consider a bulk marine terminal that must move product across a fixed footprint to remain a viable transportation solution.  Virtually, every industry must innovate in order to survive, and innovation must become part of the culture in order to become a sustaining process of evolution.  “If you’re not innovating, you’re stagnating,” says Ria Glenn DeMay, J.D., Labor Relations Manager for the University of Maine System in Hallowell, Maine.

So how do you cultivate an environment that promotes new ideas and exploits them? In a recent HR Magazine article, freelance writer, Katheryn Tyler, provides ten steps business leaders can take to unlock innovation.

1 - Understand the Process

“Innovation is a process, and brainstorming is just the first step.” says Michael Stanleigh, CEO of Business Improvement Architects.  Ensure that executives have realistic expectations about what innovation might deliver and what the process is for bringing an idea forward, vetting it, and making it a reality.  These expectations need to be communicated throughout the organization.  Before employees can be expected to contribute to the innovation process, they must understand what innovation means in the context of the company and why it matters.

​2- HR Needs to Walk the Talk 

HR can’t expect to foster an innovative company culture if it does not have an innovative culture within its own function. “Lead by example,” advises Parker C. McKenna, SHRM-SCP, a member of the Society for Human Resource Management’s HR Disciplines Special Expertise Panel. “For example, HR should welcome feedback from customers and involve stakeholders in developing new HR strategies to meet business needs.”

3- Hire Differently

HR and management should be recruiting and screening, not only have the hard skills necessary for the job but also for creativity. While specific job skills can often be taught, soft skills associated with creativity can be harder to find, says Danna Hewick, SHRM-SCP, vice president of human resources at USSI, a janitorial company in Bethesda, Md. “Instead of focusing solely on experience and hard skills, focus on the soft skills—innovation, collaboration and change management—needed to bring innovation to life.”

“Making the ‘safe hire’ kills a lot of innovation,” says Braden Kelley, author of Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire (Wiley, 2010). “If a person matches 100 percent of the job description and has done this job a thousand times, what will he bring that is new? Obviously, hiring someone who doesn’t fit your culture is a waste of time and money, but which culture are you trying to fit? The culture you have or the culture you’re trying to become?”

4 - Make Space

A dedicated area that moves people out of their day-to-day work environment, disrupts their thinking, and encourages face-to-face interaction can be vital to sparking innovation. What should be available in the room? Katherine Tyler contends: “Comfortable workspaces with couches, tables, and lots of pods where people can gather in small groups all foster teamwork. Other tools that will help people capture ideas, like smartboards, whiteboards, and big screens help people depict their ideas,” Tyler says.

5 - Carve out Time

If you are committed to making innovation part of the culture, an organization must Intentionally block time on the calendar to learn something new and then use that knowledge to tackle a problem, according to Parker McKenna.

At BetterUp, a mobile platform coaching company, the HR team instituted “no-meeting Fridays” to build in periods of time that are conducive to creative flow. “Flow is a cognitive state of immersion that enables deep thinking and creativity that’s not possible in five-minute increments between meetings,” according to Gabriella Rosen Kellerman, the company’s Chief Innovation Officer. “We also designate ‘inner work’ days, during which the office closes, and employees are asked to refrain from ‘outer work’ like emails and calls and instead focus on reflective practices like reading, walking, and mindfulness.”

6 - Train Leaders

Provide training to managers and executives around topics such as creativity, how to be a better listener, and the overall process of being innovative, says Robert Farmer, SHRM-SCP, senior vice president of people solutions at the Missoula Federal Credit Union in Missoula, Montana.  While leaders at most companies are traditionally taught to minimize risk, “to be an innovative leader, you have to be open to risk and ambiguity,” he says.

7- Empower the Front Line

Many of the brightest and most useful ideas come from the lowest levels of the organization—people who deal daily with customers, suppliers, products and services,” says Bill Thomas, SHRM-SCP, managing principal of organizational strategy consultancy Centric Performance LLC. An example of this concept can be found in Whirlpool’s mantra: “Innovation comes from everyone, everywhere.”

For an organization to take advantage of innovative ideas, senior employees need to be taught to be open-minded toward their junior counterparts. “Sometimes senior leaders tend to silence the ideas of less experienced employees,” DeMay says. She maintains it’s better to avoid dismissing anyone’s ideas and to allow open dialogue. “Ideas that may not look feasible at first might become feasible with a little creativity,” she says.

8- Design Expansive Work Assignments

Innovation requires collaboration across many different areas in the company, but, unfortunately, a lot of companies have a siloed approach to operations. To encourage people to work across boundaries, Braden Kelley recommends offering job rotations and internal internships, as well as “innovation vacations,” when employees can schedule time away from their usual jobs to pursue new ideas.

9 - Share Creative Stories

Stories are an important part of an organization’s institutional memory. The narratives that employees tell and retell are ones that convey core elements of the company’s core values and identity. Be intentional about which stories the organization chooses to tell in case studies, training sessions and newsletters. “Organizations where the most-talked-about stories revolve around creativity inspire others to follow suit, building a culture of innovation,” according to Michael Stanleigh.

And don’t be afraid to tell stories about failures, either—but reframe those tales as learning opportunities. “Innovative cultures and leaders understand the role failure plays in the innovation process,” Thomas says.

10 - Tie Innovation Efforts to Performance Reviews

It is natural for employees to focus their time on the activities on which they are evaluated. So, if organizations want workers to spend time on innovation, they should measure employees’ effectiveness toward that goal. “Evaluate the extent to which an employee thinks creatively, accepts new ways of doing things, and adapts to change,” McKenna advises. “Change can come from anywhere,” Mitchell says,“ and organizations need to be ready to respond.

Significance

A growing number of organizations are recognizing the need to make innovation and creativity part of their culture.  The difficulty is that the rewards from innovation require an investment in time, resources, and programs.  Any investment takes a leap of faith and a willingness to take risk. On the flip side, small innovations from the entire team might just be the difference between success and irrelevance.


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