Are you a leader? Then you’re thinking about innovation – right? No –I’m not watching you right now. That would be creepy. It’s just something I happen to know about you. And let me guess – you’re not seeing enough of it from your team members. Want my advice? Fire every last one of them. No wait – don’t do that. But I do have some thoughts on the matter of leading for innovation.
Before we dive in, let’s first acknowledge the aspirational pointers living in the leadership ether. A few of my favorites include:
- The “Google approach” of (allegedly) inviting employees to spend 20% of their time just thinking. (Though with free breakfast, lunch and dinner available, one might wonder – 20% of how many hours?).
- There’s the “read more books, across industries and fields to generate new ideas” approach – (But when?)
- Experiment – test, and fail (um, won’t I get fired?)
- Broaden your network of thinkers (refer to hesitation on second item).
- Build an open floor plan (wait – what did you say, brain?)
All of the above are great strategies when implemented effectively. But really, the foundation for great innovation comes not in the how, but in the what. What defines innovation? Or more specifically, how do you define it for your team? Oftentimes, herein lies the key to success. We tend to focus so much on inventing the next iPhone (isn’t there an app for that yet?) that we fail to recognize – and therefore appreciate, encourage, and inspire a virtuous cycle of – innovation that comes in the form of iteration. Of small increments that enhance the experience of our employees or customers. Of the tiny inflections of happiness that hit our windshields.
Innovation does not need to turn the world upside down. And when leaders set that expectation, motivation can nosedive. However, when leaders genuinely encourage – and publicly celebrate – the most incremental of improvements, it’s massively motivating. And it becomes self-perpetuating.
Has a team member ever reformatted a spreadsheet to shave 10 minutes off the data collection process? Has one ever nuanced the wording on survey or website to tick conversion up? Have you seen a new approach to setting an agenda for a team meeting that enhanced engagement?
Sure, we may acknowledge these as positive, as drivers of efficiency. But do we typically label these as “Innovation “with a capital “I”? Maybe you do. But I know firsthand, many don’t. Will labeling such acts as innovation stifle the potential for the life-changers to happen? Absolutely not – in fact it’ll have the opposite impact. By labeling these increments as innovation, we get our minds and muscles primed for innovation. The more we practice, the greater the muscle memory for inventing and creating and iterating.
So what’s the take away? Drop some new semantics in your leadership toolbox. Instead of “Thank you, Jane, for running a very efficient team meeting,” try “Jane, I love the way you innovated on that agenda – it really had an impact in this way (be specific!).” And in turn, your own language will indeed have an impact.