How To Create An Environment of Innovation
I found myself seated next to a corporate executive in a recent flight out of Atlanta, while I was attempting to read a book, he was yammering away on his cell phone about quarterly results and the need for a reduction in head count. Hearing this, my hopes of becoming engrossed in a good book was now over. Now I’m just upset at how some folks seem to make life changing decisions with such little regard or emotion.
Not one word about what a difficult decision this was, no change in tone or emotion, it was as if eliminating people was as common as going to store to pick up a gallon of milk.
I tell myself to ignore the conversation and read but I couldn’t, I kept thinking “how in the heck do so many companies find themselves in this position?”
They’re obviously lacking good people, strong leaders, problem solvers and innovators. Instead they have confused the short term focused idiot broadcasting their company problems in seat 3C with someone who is supposed to be a leader. From my seat, it’s quite clear they need clean house and somehow begin to breed innovation.
Creating the Mix
Strong/healthy companies understand that the infusion of fresh/green talent combined with a group of experienced people breeds innovation and it’s that innovation that leads to new products and new techniques that make them stronger. As others have pointed out short term vision and/or goals tend to upset that blend that breeds innovation. When experienced people are let go and hiring is frozen stagnation and decline is not far off.
Those who are experienced; even to the point of being considered experts in their field need fresh blood who will continue to challenge and experiment to break paradigms, and those who are new or less experienced need the experienced experts to accelerate their learning curve. It’s a very subtle balance that is easily upset again by continued focus on short term goals.
Nourishing a Creative Environment
While breakthrough ideas and inventions can happen anytime any place it helps to create a work environment that encourages teamwork and creativity. If the goal is to have your employees come up with new ideas, inventions and solutions that will separate your company from its competitors, you need to work at creating an environment that encourages innovation.
A workplace where people feel comfortable to openly express/share potential new ideas without facing a crowd of doubters, sceptics and naysayers. Building a team of creative people takes a fair amount of face to face time and while technology has somewhat changed that term, let me clarify by saying this group of people needs to be in the same place. Their time together should include team building activities both at work and even more important outside of work. The most creative teams start out as colleagues and over time solid friendships emerge. Think about activities team members can participate in along with fun family based events (Rafting, Skiing, Bowling, Water Parks, Go-Carts) that help create solid friendships. Understand, with friendship comes trust and with that trust you now have a team that will openly share ideas and work to address problems and develop solutions.
While all this sounds simple when put into a couple of paragraphs this is where most companies fall down before they even start to walk. Look up team building exercises in a Google search and you’ll find 10 pages of nonsense put together and/or copied by a group of consultants who more than likely never had to work as part of a real world, this is my job, functioning team. My favorite in the search results are the ads for “Quick Team Building Exercises”. The only thing quick about these techniques is how quick the money goes from your companies account to theirs.
If you want to build a team environment that promotes trust, challenge your teams to work on/solve real world company problems. Solving problems is the first step in building the confidence to make breakthrough innovations. Solving problems also provides your leaders with the opportunity to practice the next step in developing an innovative team.
Reinforcing the Effort
While your people might be on the path to becoming a high functioning team if your leadership fails to recognize the effort on a regular basis it can quickly come apart and result in irreparable damage to your effort.
Proper reinforcement and recognition requires your leaders to be engaged in the workings, goals, accomplishments and most important, the behaviors of each team. One of the saddest things I ever witnessed was a high functioning innovative team that completely came apart when the company they worked for decided to make a change in leaders. The incoming manager (he had very few leadership qualities) was on boarded by the outgoing leader over a period of 4 weeks and on the day he took over, he announce to the group that they were all mature adults and could clearly function without his input. He declared them self-directed and then proceeded to interject himself into nearly everything they were working on including taking credit for a couple of significant improvements. Within 3 months several key players had transferred, some out of the group, one left the company and the teamwork the previous leader worked hard to achieve was lost.
Understanding and practicing Performance Management in the workplace is a key element in building and sustaining high functioning individuals and teams. Learning how to apply the methods requires formal training and a full-time commitment to the process and managers who are not on board with the process should be quickly identified and eliminated. (Nearly everyone will say upfront they agree with the methods, but counterproductive behaviors will clearly identify those who do not.)
Those lucky enough to effectively lead a team that thrives on solving complex problems and creating innovative solutions will tell you reinforcement and recognition play a huge part in building and sustaining the effort. Both need to be done on a regular basis and should always meet the requirements of being;
· Positive – For the individual, the team and the manager
· Immediate – The reinforcement/recognition should be given as close to the behavior as possible
· Certain – There should be no doubt as to what the team or individual is being reinforced/recognized for
Sustaining the Effort
When you do put together that right mix of people, create an environment that fosters creativity and innovation and find the right leader to make it all work… Please, take my advice and let them work! Leave them alone! Don’t look to take one or two of the strong players and move them someplace else thinking they will somehow magically be able to clone their effort with the snap of a finger.
It never works!
The friendships are gone, the trust is not there and the people he or she now works with don’t understand why the new superstar thinks work should be fun.
If you want to sustain the effort, leave it alone. Should some of the team members get bored work to create new challenges and for God’s sake pay them what they are worth. In fact break the stupid rules your HR department has created to keep them together. Let them share their successes at internal events and conferences and should there ever be need for a change (Some people will want a new challenge) let the team manage how it will take place including interviewing new candidates.
If this fine balance of People, Teamwork and Leadership beginning to sound difficult to achieve it should. Most will never see nor participate in a real life working example. The closest they will come will be attending conference presentation, or reading an article or book.
Getting there however is not impossible, find someone who has been there before and listen closely. Those who have lived the experience see in the eyes of others the dream of taking part in a truly rewarding experience.
Douglas Plucknette is the creator of RCM Blitz™, the author of Reliability Centered Maintenance using RCM Blitz™ and Clean, Green and Reliable a best-selling book on how to reduce energy consumption in manufacturing plants through equipment reliability. Doug has published over 50 articles on Maintenance and Reliability, and has been a featured Speaker as well as Keynote Speaker at a countless number of conferences around the world.