Turn Everyone Into Innovators
Leading a team of geniuses can spark big breakthroughs. But what happens when you want people who lack training in innovation to think outside the box?
Some individuals may refrain from offering creative input for fear of appearing crazy or stupid — or clashing with a powerful manager’s preferred course of action. Others may simply not see themselves as inventive visionaries.
To transform non-innovators into innovators:
Let them build. To design something new, invite users to roll up their sleeves and build a prototype. That may require some initial training, but it can produce a rich payoff.
“We host ‘maker’ workshops where we take people who are not traditionally innovators, give them some tools and teach them about design,” said Rory Cooper, founder and director of Human Engineering Research Laboratories in Pittsburgh, Pa. Cooper, who uses a wheelchair, enlists people with disabilities to help develop assistive devices. He also involves caregivers, clinicians and others as partners in the innovative process.
Forge a bond. If you’re asking people to innovate who aren’t accustomed to it, make them feel special. Foster a camaraderie that brings them together.
For the past 10 years, Cooper has given participants a T-shirt with the research lab’s logo. The shirt has become a coveted perk.
“You can’t buy them,” Cooper said. “You have to earn them” by contributing ideas.
Break down barriers. Treat everyone from part-time workers to customers as potential innovators, even if they don’t see themselves as such. Solicit their input on creative challenges you face — and provide multiple ways for them to chime in.
“At our design meetings, everybody has a voice,” Cooper said. “Everybody is welcome to attend. And that transparency leads them to see how much we value innovation.”
Share screw-ups. Insisting that people innovate can backfire if they’re unprepared or reluctant to open up. But when leaders volunteer their errors — and what they learned — others might follow suit.
Enda King, managing director at What If Innovation, says that his New York City-based consulting firm holds weekly gatherings in which colleagues admit their mistakes and share what they learned. Team leaders go first, which makes underlings more comfortable doing the same.
“We look to build that into our culture,” King said. “It feels less daunting to enable learning, experimentation and failure than asking people to be innovative and produce large-scale breakthroughs.”
Cite examples. To spur great ideas, highlight innovations in other fields that are inspiring or instructive. These examples can serve as a springboard to get individuals to flex their creative muscles.
“Often, people are not skilled in the tools to be creative,” said Greg Leman, an innovation expert and professor of entrepreneurship at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. “Giving them anecdotes of transformative solutions to issues with a distant tie to the challenge you’re facing” can boost their innovative output.
Capture the big picture. Leaders may assume that all staffers perceive the competitive landscape in the same way — and realize the urgency to innovate. But that’s not necessarily the case.
“It’s amazing how disconnected people can be to the big picture,” Leman said. “That’s why you need to communicate an innovation strategy with what’s going on at your company as well as the outside, competitive world — and the path you’re following” to maintain an edge.
Give honest feedback. Once you gather input, assess it in a straightforward manner. Don’t dish out excessive praise or reward individuals too freely for trying to come up with fresh ideas.
“People know if they are honestly valued,” Leman said. “It’s hard to hide your genuine thoughts,” so level with others and teach them to sharpen their innovative thinking.