How Do I Get My People To Be More Innovative?

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The question was posed to me recently by an executive level client. He was upset that his project managers didn’t seem to want to go beyond the way things were normally done. He wanted them to try different approaches and new ideas. The executive is an engineer and very experienced in the industry. His project managers are a mix of varied levels of experience and knowledge.

In any business today, it’s necessary to continually find new ways to perform tasks and innovation has become a watchword. But, it is not as simple as just saying, “Be innovative.”

If you want your team to be more innovative, to seek out better ways of doing their jobs, you have to develop a culture that encourages that.

  1. Recognize your own experience level and the level of your team. My executive client was highly experienced and had an engineer’s view of the world. His project managers were responsible for bringing projects in on-time and on-budget. Doing things differently came with a high level of risk. That’s why it’s important to…
  2. Encourage people to try new things. Get in the habit of asking, “How can we do that better?” Let that become a company mantra. Apply it to everything. Most great improvements come from small changes. The big win is certainly nice, but a steady stream of small successes will be more valuable in the long run. When leaders regularly ask that question, it becomes a normal part of the planning process. However, this only works if…
  3. Leadership is willing to accept risk. The secret to an innovative culture is that not every new idea will work. Leaders must celebrate success and learn from failure. This is a critical point. The team must know that trying something new that doesn’t work out will not land them in the doghouse, or on the street.
  4. Finally, leaders must be willing to step aside and let innovation happen. If there are specific requirements or constraints, let everyone know what they are. Then get out of the way and let your people innovate! At the same time, be willing to re-evaluate those specific requirements and constraints.

I spent the majority of my adult life in the world of aircraft and explosives maintenance. It’s a world where failure, or even simple mistakes, can be catastrophic. But even in that highly regulated and controlled environment, better methods and procedures were suggested regularly. Those new ideas usually came from the working level, not the leaders or engineers. Of course we would always run new ways of doing things by more experienced people and the engineers to make sure we weren’t missing something, but I can’t count the number of improvements that came from encouraging an innovative culture.

There seems to be a basic human tendency to seek out better and easier ways to accomplish tasks. If you don’t see that, it may be because you are not encouraging it. Start by asking “How can we do that better?” Then keep asking.

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