For innovation to thrive you need to have the right environment. An environment where innovation is valued and nurtured.
An environment where people can share ideas, where they can try new things, and where they are rewarded for challenging the status quo. It is the key ingredient that underpins any innovation process.
To foster innovation in your team, think about the following elements and see how you and your team stack up...
1. Clarity and commitment to goals
Clarity and commitment to goals refers to the extent that team members share a common understanding of the team's goals and display high commitment to these goals (commitment meaning that they think the goals are important and want to achieve them).
If team members aren't invested in achieving the goals of the team, they will be less inclined to invest mental effort in innovative thinking and problem solving.
- Set goals that are consequential - people have to care about achieving a goal, whether because they stand to gain a reward, like recognition or a bonus, or because they value what they are trying to achieve, which gives them purpose and a sense of satisfaction.
- Set goals that are challenging - goals need to be challenging enough to push your team members but not so difficult that they become disheartened.
2. A 'safe' environment
Having a safe environment refers to psychological safety rather than physical safety. It means that team members are safe to voice their thoughts and opinions without the threat of ridicule or reprisal. Team members should still be able to disagree and share different perspectives and viewpoints, but do it in a constructive and respectful manner.
When team members operate in a safe environment they are more inclined to come up with new ideas because they aren't concerned about being judged. It also facilitates team learning because team members feel safe to openly discuss errors or failures, to ask questions and seek feedback.
- Clarify your expectations - ensure that every team member understands your expectations about open, honest and respectful communication and why it is important.
- Manage the group dynamics - if you have a mix of dominant and passive personalities, you may need to manage group interactions and ensure the passive team members have the opportunity to contribute their opinions without being interrupted or spoken over.
- Practice what you preach - you need to be an active participant in creating a safe environment. You can't encourage people to speak openly and then ridicule their ideas or get annoyed at them for expressing opinions that you don't agree with.
3. Information sharing
Information sharing refers to the extent that you and your team members share information, share knowledge and past experiences, and exchange and discuss ideas. The more open the lines of communication, the better positioned the team is to solve problems and react to change.
- Create a safe environment (see above) - information sharing requires an open and trusting environment.
- Give people reasons to communicate - openly discuss the issues and challenges the team are facing. If you keep your team members in the loop with what is going on, it will encourage them to think about possible solutions and share their ideas with each other.
- Lead by example - when you actively share information and knowledge, you demonstrate that information sharing is valuable for the team, and it will encourage your team members to do the same.
- Recognise ideas and contributions - when you recognise people's contribution of ideas and information, it shows them that their input is valued and further increases information sharing.
4. Management support
Support for innovation refers to the extent that managers encourage fresh thinking, empower their people to experiment and find new and better ways of working, and help ideas get off the ground by providing people the time and the resources to do it. Without adequate management support for innovation - through both words and actions - innovation cannot thrive.
- Focus on outcomes not processes - unless it is necessary to follow a specific process, communicate the outcome of a task and let your team members find the best way of getting it done. This gives them more control over their work which boosts motivation and encourages innovative thinking.
- Encourage creative thinking - research shows that people believe that they will appear smarter to others if they are more critical. This means that new ideas are often met with harsh criticism and/or rigorous evaluation, which discourages creative thinking. Of course not all ideas are worthy of consideration, but if an idea has some merit, keep an open mind and look for how it might work rather than why it won't.
- Provide time and resources - getting new ideas off the ground takes time and resources. You need to allow your team members adequate time to work on innovative projects and supply the essential resources if you want them to succeed.
5. Positive reinforcement
Positive reinforcement refers to the extent that team members are recognised and rewarded for engaging in innovative behaviours, and the extent to which failure is dealt with in a positive way. Positive reinforcement is essential for encouraging continued engagement with the innovation process.
- Recognise innovative efforts - when your team members generate and implement great ideas, recognise their achievements and show them that you value their efforts. It will motivate them to do more of it.
- Use failure as a learning opportunity - failure is a necessary part of the innovation process because from failure comes learning and adaptation. Don't punish your team members when new ideas fail, help them to reflect and see what lessons can be learned. Turn those mistakes into stepping stones.