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What do you mean "You're Innovative"?

I see it in so many places, the company encourages you to be innovative, you want to be innovative, you think you're being innovative, but after a while it all just seems a little forced. The initial impetus has gone flat and, day-to-day, the obvious opportunities for innovation seem increasingly elusive. So what went wrong?




The trouble is that many companies see innovation as something different from other business processes. Let's use punctuality as an example: if you wanted to make people more conscious of punctuality as important to your business you'd probably introduce some awareness training, make it more obviously an expectation, but you'd also establish some measures and procedures that would keep it relevant for people on a day-to-day basis. So why do we make a big fanfare for introducing innovation in the workplace, and then refuse people the tools that will allow them to keep it fresh and important? A few motivational posters don't cut it, people need more than passive encouragement to keep innovation as a welcome routine.


When the innovation initiative was introduced, what was the primary focus, product or process? If it was singularly product (i.e. the output of innovation) then what sustains the initiative when the low hanging fruit has all been picked?


People need to have routines and measures that help them to recognise that innovation is a key component of a new way of working. It's expected, valued, and recognised when and where it happens. In short it's culturally embedded.



So what do we do to achieve this?


First of all we should be introducing innovation from the start as both process and product. There are plenty of activities and approaches that encourage and reward innovative behaviour and innovative leadership, but it's rarer to be able to explore the organisational conditions that promote ongoing innovation. At RSVP Design we use our learning tool "Reversal" to allow team members to recognise the team working conditions that allow them to contribute most effectively. When this exercise is done with the whole team then members get to recognise that what works for them may not work for others. The learning that is transferred back into the workplace allows the operating environment to be consciously flexible to accommodate the needs of the members when innovation is active.




This type of learning activity also builds the acceptance of routine peer-challenge about innovation and learning. Every team member should expect, and ideally welcome, their colleagues asking the difficult questions about evidence of learning and innovation. A key part of the introduction of any new innovation initiative must be about building the informal contracts that allow challenge, up, down, and across the hierarchy. I recently worked with the management population of a major utility organisation that had brilliant innovation structures and processes. The leadership couldn't understand why their people were not embracing these, despite initially having asked for them. The remedy was simply to bring the whole population together and enjoy some shared experience that left nobody in any doubt that they had permission to do what they needed to do for driving innovation at every level.




Once permissions are in place we need to recognise that if we are going to encourage peer-challenge as routine, we need to give people the tools that access the data they need as a foundation for this challenge, or as a foundation for their response. This sounds like a pretty scary place to work, but a network of snoops and informers is the exact opposite of what I'm suggesting as being supportive of innovation in the workplace. My suggestion is simply to move towards every team member being confident in answering the question "How do you know that you, and your colleagues, are being effective in promoting innovation?"




The requisite confidence comes from building the skills that make difficult conversations easier; and these skills are ideal candidates for development through a learning environment that employs an experiential approach. At RSVP Design we advocate the creation of a business management simulations such as is delivered through "Top Priority". This is sufficiently recognisable in its similarity to real life to make learning transfer easy, and the type of conversations needed to make the simulation work are just what is needed to encourage more robust conversations back at work.




So what of the data needed to fuel these conversations? This begins with everybody knowing whats expected of them in terms of learning and innovation. Team meetings, appraisal conversations, agreement of KPIs - all of these are opportunities to determine whats expected of every team member, and what success in these areas looks like. After this it's about openly publishing targets and achievements so that the sweet-spot of permission, confidence and data can be achieved by every team member. So long as leaders keep this situation current with recognition, energy and direction then it should become established as a sustainable way of working.



View our activities & resources for developing Innovation & Creativity in your organisation today!

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