Could we please stop talking about innovation in the workplace? Digital media junkie and content manager Megan Wright points out the pitfalls of the “innovation trap”.
I’m suffering from innovation fatigue. It’s a word that’s thrown around in the marketing industry the same way a chef might use the word ‘cook’ or a mechanic the word ‘fix’. In fact, if I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that word this year, I’d be eating my smashed avo AND buying a new apartment.
But a buzzword is still a word, right? Wrong. The real value of innovation – and the value that’s often overlooked – is derived from its intent and application in everyday life. Judging from the ennui many of us experience, I’d say we’ve definitely reached peak use of the word, while simultaneously failing to unlock its real world potential.
And when applied to the marketing industry – the places we work, the teams we build and the culture we craft – the relevance of this argument becomes clear. “Empowering the rank and file to innovate is where most leaders fall short,” Adam Grant wrote in an HBR article titled How to Build a Culture of Originality.
The trap leaders fall into, says Grant, is in trying to recruit “brash entrepreneurial types” to inject energy and new ideas into organisations. “It’s a wrongheaded approach,” he continues, “because it assumes that the best innovators are rare creatures with special gifts. Research shows that entrepreneurs who succeed over the long haul are actually more risk-averse than their peers.”
What is innovation anyway?
According to Fortune 500 CMO and innovation leader, Peter Horst, “there’s one universal requirement for success: creating the right culture—the feel of the room, the tone in the air, that hard-to-define-but-critical mix of restless energy, hunger for challenge, confidence to strive, open dialogue, and sense of safety in failure.”
It’s hard to quantify, says Horst, but you’ll know when you’ve hit the sweet spot. It’s about having motivated and engaged staff, fostering diversity and inclusion, and making change a regular thing, says workplace culture and people development expert, Lexie Wilkins.
And it starts at the top. “The values of the organisation are transparent and have been developed in consultation with all layers of the team,” says Wilkins. “They are lived and breathed by all, from the leaders downwards. Leaders themselves are approachable and communicative.”
Start with trust, she says, and the rest will follow. “The most important first stepping stone is to foster an atmosphere of trust amongst employees themselves and management.”
So many benefits
While the benefits of an innovative workplace culture may not always be measurable, they’re manifest in tangible outcomes such as happiness, creativity and overall satisfaction levels.
“Creative excellence is the result of an innovative workplace,” says Wilkins, citing a 2012 report from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). According to the report, profitability can increase by as much as 50% in more “innovation active” businesses, not to mention the productivity gains.
Innovation also fosters happiness in the workplace, with transparency and trust playing key roles. In his TedTalk, Designing Your Life, best-selling author Bill Burnett explains that happiness depends on synergy between who you are, what you believe and what you do in the world.
Extending this view to the realm of workplace innovation, it’s not difficult to see why culture is the cornerstone of creative energy.
“The unattainable best is the enemy of all the available betters,” Burnett adds. A very apt explanation against striving for the “perfect” workplace culture, if you ask me.
Last but certainly not least, embracing diversity is key to unlocking the creative flow. “Failing to embrace diversity and inclusion when establishing a collaborative and creative workplace is a bit like cooking spaghetti without the sauce: Edible but pretty bland,” says Wilkins. While the transition to a diverse workplace may be challenging, the business outcomes can be vast, she says.
On reflection, it’s not difficult to see why I find the word innovation so painful. In a world where we could be doing so much to unlock creativity and foster better ways of working, so many fall short. When it comes to innovation, there’s really only one thing left to do: Less talk, more action.
Here are my top three tips to build a culture of creative innovation:
Ask open questions – keep your team thinking, and not just in a tactical way, but in a big picture sense. Questions like “what if…?” and “what else…?” are great.
Redefine incentives – your metrics for success should be based on the culture and work practices you’re trying to grow, not legacy systems with performance metrics pegged to them.
Empower experimentation – encouraging your team to speak out will create a much more open and honest environment. Let your actions show that no idea is a bad one, that experimentation is welcomed, and that creativity is rewarded.