How to Help Your Team Be More Innovative

The following is a guest post from ProjectHR guests Karin Hurt and David Dye.  Click here to learn more about their work in growing leaders.

To say you and your team are “facing a new normal” is putting it mildly.  it’s hard to say what things will look like in one year, much less six months from now. If you’re like most of our clients navigating the challenges of return to work and hybrid teams, you need your team to be more innovative.

But innovation and creative thinking can be hard. Particularly when you’re moving fast just trying to keep up.  

When we talk with leaders who wish their team were more innovative, we often find that they unintentionally stifle creativity. With a few shifts in how you lead, you can cultivate a more innovative environment and encourage micro-innovations and better problem solving on your team.

Research on Team Innovation

In our Courageous Cultures research conducted in conjunction with the University of North Colorado on why employees don’t speak up and share ideas, we found some important insights.

  • 40% of employees said they lack the confidence to share ideas
  • 49% said they’re not regularly asked for ideas
  • 50% said nothing will happen if they share an idea, so why bother
  • And 67% said their manager operates under the notion of “this is the way we’ve always done it”

Which means, even if you are the most human-centered leader, chances are employees on your team have had an experience in the past is stifling innovation. It's possible to help your team be more innovative, and we're going to cover some quick ways you can do so.

7 Ways to Help Your Team Be More Innovative

1. Ask for what you want.

Innovation requires clarity. This type of direct approach to help your team be more innovative may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s amazing what happens when you get everyone pointed in the right direction. 

It’s the difference between being given a blank sheet of paper and told to write a creative story vs asked to write a story about a shy rabbit who wants to meet the woodchuck on the other side of the fence. Even if you don’t think of yourself as innovative, you could put together a story about that rabbit.

The same thing applies when you ask your team for their creative ideas. Rather than say, “We need everyone’s creativity and ideas to help us survive,” you might try:

Our number one goal right now is to differentiate ourselves from our competitors and demonstrate value for our customers. We can’t do it the way we used to. This is where we need ideas. How can we add distinct value that our competitors can’t or won’t?

2. Appreciate new ideas.

When someone comes up with a new idea that’s not quite ready, thank them, add information, and invite them to keep thinking. In Courageous Cultures we call this “Respond with Regard.”

For example, rather than say “We tried that last year” or “That won’t work because …” you might try: “Thanks so much for thinking about new ways we could try that. You know, last year we tried something similar, and we ran into this obstacle. Would you be willing to think about how we can overcome this obstacle?”

Or “I appreciate you thinking about this. Here’s some additional information that makes your suggestion challenging. I would love to hear your thoughts about how we can overcome this challenge or look at it differently.”

3. Reward effort, not just success.

You get more of what you encourage, less of what you ignore. Creativity requires risk-taking, so don’t limit encouragement and rewards to the ideas that work. Some ideas won’t work out, but you need all of them to find the ones that will. One of the crucial ways to help your team be more innovative is to reward that innovation. A fun example of rewarding effort is an annual award for “the best idea that didn’t work.”

4. Combine ideas and constraints.

Creativity is often a result of limitations. Try asking questions like “How can we … do x and y ?” where x is the idea and y is the constraint. For instance, someone asked, “How can we have a transportation company – without any fleet?” The answers of course are Uber and Lyft.

5. Start small to help your team be more innovative.

Invite people to test their ideas with the smallest viable trial. This encourages people to try, rather than abandon ideas that “just might work,” but need refining. What did they learn? What would they do differently next time?

6. Don’t brainstorm.

Staring at a blank whiteboard and trying to offer ideas in a room or video conference with people of different power levels is a horrible way to be creative. Start with the first step on this list: ask for what you want. What will a successful solution do for your team or the customer?  (You need this to evaluate creative options later.)

Then, rather than brainstorming, try alternatives like having everyone write three solutions on notecards. Scramble the notecards and redistribute. Have everyone write two ideas that build on the ideas they see on their card. Repeat. Then shuffle and have everyone share the ideas on their cards. Assess the ideas based on how well they potentially achieve the previously defined successful outcomes.

One you have ideas you can use our I.D.E.A. model to vet them and ensure your innovative ideas are viable.

courageous culture ideas

7. Create space.

We heard it again just last week while working with a team of talented and dedicated leaders. Some of them said, “It’s very hard for me to be creative when I’m put on the spot or in the moment. I’m much better if you can give me the problem or concept and let me think about it for a little while.” It's not impossible to help your teams be more innovative, but it takes a little bit of work and some creativity.

In an interview for Courageous Cultures, Jason Fried, co-founder of Basecamp, explained that creative problem-solving “requires time to think, consider, and marinade. In most companies, there’s no time for that. Calendars are chock-full and leaders don’t understand that they’ve spread people too thin.”

Maximize innovation by creating space for it. Resist the urge to fill every minute with “productive” work – and be sure to model this yourself as well. If you say it, but don’t do it, your team will follow your example, not your words.

Maximize #innovation by creating space for it. Resist the urge to fill every minute with “productive” work, and set the example! #innovative #employees #employeeexperience

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Karin Hurt and David Dye

Karin Hurt and David Dye help human-centered leaders resolve workplace ambiguity and chaos, so that they can drive innovation, productivity and revenue without burning out employees. As CEO and President of Let’s Grow Leaders, they are known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. Karin and David are the award-winning authors of five books including, Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul A former Verizon Wireless executive, Karin was named to Inc. Magazine’s list of great leadership speakers. David Dye is a former executive and elected official. Karin and David are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells – building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.

This article is based on our new book Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates

You can take our FREE Courageous Cultures quiz and receive a free chapter here.

About the Author Jennifer Orechwa

With over 25 years in the industry, and now as IRI's Director of Business Development, Jennifer has gained a unique perspective on what it takes to build a culture of engagement. By blending a deep understanding of labor and employee relations with powerful digital marketing knowledge, Jennifer has helped thousands of companies achieve behavioral change at a cultural level.

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