Innovation isn’t rocket science

Innovation isn’t rocket science
According to IDEO, the leaders of organizations who successfully build innovative cultures exhibit the same five behaviors.

As a long-time consultant at IDEO, I hear the same four words from companies of all shapes and sizes: We need more innovation. They want to to know what they can do to to generate creativity and support developing ideas organizationally. Should they build an internal innovation lab? Hire an entrepreneur? Acquire a creative team? The answer they don’t always want to hear is that there is no wonder drug. Sometimes those approaches work, but just as often, they don’t.

But before trying something new, it’s important to look to see why innovation isn’t already happening. The failure to innovate usually comes down to two prevailing reasons: First, leadership doesn’t embody the change they want to see. Second, the organization is mired in an old way of doing things that stymies new ideas. Often, it’s a bit of both.

Innovation isn’t about products, it’s about people. An organization’s leaders need to empower their people to innovate. In our experience, there are five distinct and consistent patterns of leadership behaviors that stoke a culture of innovation regardless of company size, industry, or age:

1. Don’t just invite ideas — be open to change.

At a major cable network, one employee was inspired to create new programming. Though she was invited to pitch her ideas, she hit a wall of leadership who were not fundamentally interested in change. She ended up leaving the company for one where the leaders modeled a culture of inclusivity by not only offering employees time to pitch ideas, but also giving transparent feedback during routine “office hours” and backing good ideas with resources.

Mandates alone don’t change behavior. Leaders need to show what “good” looks like by offering people permission to take risks, empathizing with a non-leadership perspective, and helping to remove roadblocks. Default to accepting new ideas and don’t be quick to dismiss change.

2. Practice divergent and convergent thinking loudly.

It’s easy to give the expected “right” answers and get to a resolution quickly. This is convergent thinking. But it doesn’t generate any new ideas. That’s what divergent thinking is for: hold many possibilities as true, live in a state of ambiguity, and don’t immediately drive toward solutions. It takes a different mindset — one of optimism and exploration.

Be intentional about when to use each mindset. You may need convergence when coming up with a communications or brand strategy, and divergent thinking when coming up with a new product, offer, or service. It may help to be declarative about what type of thinking is needed in a given meeting. One financial service client experimented with naming each meeting so everyone knows the “mode” they are in: idea-generation, review/decision, catch-up, and so forth.

3. Reward the right outcomes.

The leaders of a large legacy company announced a new approach at a town hall: they would encourage collaboration and embrace failure as a way to become more innovative. But their performance management process did not change and rewarded one thing: successfully achieving goals, regardless of collaboration or creativity. So, employees simply ignored the new strategy. There was even a secret set of employee guidelines (developed without leadership or HR’s knowledge) that offered tips on how to set achievable goals and how to ensure you got credit for it — all in service of a better review and a better bonus.

If you are trying to build a stronger culture of innovation, take a good look at the people systems you have in place — compensation, promotions, performance management, and even hiring. Are they set up to work with you or against you?

4. Keep direction and autonomy in balance.

Top-down directives from leadership help set vision and priorities, but they often unintentionally disempower people, too. To set up an ideal environment for innovation, offer autonomy at all levels. Find ways to make employees feel safe to exercise bottom-up ownership. For example, Basecamp’s 37Signals named January 19 as “boycott a meeting day” to create more space and time for emergent ideas.

5. Keep it authentic.

Company values often describe an ideal state — not the current state — with no leadership support to move from one to the other. To keep your aspirational values and vision authentic, you need to support the means to achieve them. IDEO aligns its employee development programs with its values, which we share with all employees in the Little Book of IDEO, a clothbound mini manifesto that explains why we uphold certain ways of working. In practice, if you’re not “making others successful” and “talking less, doing more” you are not likely to advance in your career at IDEO.

In the same vein, it’s easy to lay out a five-step plan, as I’ve just done here. The real work comes in instilling these behaviors throughout your company, and laying the groundwork so employees are able to connect the dots themselves. If you start by modeling a permissive, inclusive, and authentic leadership style, others will follow. And before you know it, you’ll be swimming in new ideas.

Duane Bray is the Global Head of Talent at IDEO.

Explore re:Work's innovation guides to learn more about building the skills for innovation in your workplace.