Stop Talking About Innovation

Buzzwords get annoying, especially when that is all they are — words. Stop prodding your team to innovate, and kick off an Innovation Action Plan. Here is what works.

Suspend Judgments. You can do all kinds of things to encourage new ideas, but as soon as someone says, “Well, that’s stupid,” you are unlikely to get any more. Instead, let the ideas flow without judgment or criticism. Most companies have at least one grumpy senior executive that is quick to find fault with anyone else’s idea. Don’t invite them to the initial conversations, and don’t let them shut down the idea flow. Once you have a long list of ideas, filter them, change them and build upon them. Use the grumpy exec’s input later to improve or filter selected ideas. If you are really good, you can get the grumpy exec to think it actually is their idea as they participate in the filter process.

Use Expanding Questions. Change the tone and the vocabulary of your team by having them generate the company’s list of Expanding Questions. These are simple direct questions that will expand ideas rather than shut them down. List things like “Can it be bigger?” or “Can it be fewer parts?” Put your logo on it and pass it around at meetings. Have the list printed poster sized, hang it in the conference room, and refer to it often. Look up Osborn’s Checklist for inspiration.

Pay for Play. Your budget sets your priorities. Structure the organization’s schedule and budget to produce opportunities for a creative and playful atmosphere at work. Playfulness and shared challenges connect people with stronger bonds. Trust enables risk taking, and risk is inherent in innovation. If you want people to go out on a limb with a new idea, you have to make sure the connection to the tree is strong enough to hold them up. Create more opportunities to connect for fun. One of my favorites is the office mini-golf tournament. Lay out a course through the office building, asking colleagues to help design holes using office obstacles. Take a Friday afternoon and get the whole office involved. Assign foursomes that need to connect. Vote on awards for creativity as well as putting skills.

Establish an Innovation Day. Again, budgets speak louder than values statements. Set aside one day per quarter for people to tackle a problem of their choosing. It could be a customer problem, an internal process, or a cost issue. Ask a champion to clearly bound the problem and assemble a team that is passionate about solving it. Have them turn off their phones, order in lunch and spend the day focused on making a difference. If possible, hire a facilitator to help get them to tangible results by the end of the day.

Celebrate Failures. It sounds crazy, right? The key here is celebrating the right kind of failures. Congratulate people who take risks and learn. Emphasize their bravery and the knowledge the organization has gained as a result of their exploration into what didn’t work. Make your team less risk averse by softening the blow of failure.

Use Symbols and Stories. Strong cultures are full of symbolism and folklore. Take control of those things in your organization and build them up. Funny stories about an employee’s bravery, creativity, dedication etc. can be turned into awards, buttons, videos or posters and made part of the new employee orientation. Make sure the higher purpose of your organization comes through as the underlying inspiration.

Jana Spruce loves helping companies create strong cultures using creativity and systems thinking. She is an author, speaker, consultant, and mother of five. www.thesprucegroup.com

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