The calls for organizational innovation always intensify during a crisis. Sure, many leadership qualities and behaviors are in high demand right now, including the ability to handle your own and others’ emotions, the skill to set clear expectations and hold people accountable, and the gumption to make the tough calls. But the one trait I hear asked for most often is the ability to innovate — to think about problems in new ways and move swiftly to create novel solutions.

Innovative ingenuity is an individual skill. But it is powerfully affected by organizational culture. Many companies are very effective at squashing innovation, often unintentionally. How often have you heard leaders respond to a new idea with, “Oh, we already tried that and it didn’t work?” Or watched as new ideas were ignored, dismissed, or even stolen. And then leaders wonder why their team members aren’t frequently bringing them bold, creative ideas.

Tips for fostering organizational innovation from many angles

My colleague, Val Wright, recently shared some interesting tactics for leaders to signal their openness and eagerness for wildly innovative ideas.

Her suggestions include:

  • Explicitly ask people to send you ideas after you’ve rejected past pitches. When you’ve been shot down once it’s hard to come back again unless you’re clearly invited to do so. 
  • Cross organizational boundaries to gather ideas from unexpected places. Examples of this include:
    • Ask your finance team to shop your e-commerce site and suggest improvements.
    • Invite your sales team to contribute ideas for your social media messages.
    • Send your management team to spend a day in your distribution center or answering the customer service hotline and then suggest improvements.

I would add these ideas to her list:

  • Suspend judgment. Use “Yes and …” to encourage people to share their innovative thoughts.
  • Look for small innovations as well as blockbusters. As the improv theater folks say, it’s ok to “bring a brick, not a cathedral.” 
  • Recognize that innovators are sometimes difficult to be around. Just because someone is annoying does not mean their ideas are without merit. 
  • Test ideas quickly. Make the process transparent so people know that ideas are selected on their merit, not because of favoritism.
  • Recognize that successful innovation requires three stages: generating lots of interesting ideas, rapidly testing the ones that have promise, and then building alignment across the organization around the great ideas.
  • The people who are great at generating ideas are different from those who excel at testing and different again from the high-powered internal influencers. You need all three kinds of people to have a successful innovative company.

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