Saturday, August 1, 2009

Tips to Ignite Innovation Inside Your Company… and Light Your Way out of the Recession

The recession is in full swing, and companies everywhere are feeling the pain. Yours is likely no exception. Shrinking budgets, sweeping layoffs, that's settled over your workforce make it hard to see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. Sometimes, even the most optimistic leader finds him or herself wondering, Is there an end to this particular tunnel? Sure there is, but you're going to have to excavate it yourself--and you're going to have to light your own way.

It’s not about product development. It’s about new services, business processes, means of communication, and methods of collaboration. Companies that can inspite innovative ideas--good, workable innovative ideas--will be able to adapt to the new realities we face. Those that can't, won't.

The spirit of innovation, of course, is people working together eagerly, intelligently, and productively. When this synergy happens, ideas pour forth like water. Innovation is all about good teamwork. It's really that simple.

So how can you deliberately create a more innovative culture at your company? Here are some tips to help you get started:
  • Understand the new role of leadership. The focus should be moving toward such "right-brained" skills and talents as creativity, empathy, intuition, and the ability to link seemingly unrelated objects and events into something new and different. That means leaders must a) create and maintain a safe, respectful environment where individual creativity can emerge to its fullest potential, and b) focus that creative energy in the right direction based upon the core purpose of the team and the targeted goals.
    If you're a "command and control" type, you'd better start rethinking your style. Today, successful leaders aren't flashy and aggressive. They lead through inspiration and collaboration. Look at your current behaviors and determine which are helping you achieve your vision for leadership through engagement and which are holding you back. Start small--and stick with it.

  • Search for untapped talent on your team. Frankly, it is in our individual and corporate nature to try to deal with differences by eliminating them. However, employees are far more complex and unique than they might appear at first glance. Unearthing the hidden talents your employees possess is the first step toward using these areas of hidden development to your team's advantage.
    Employees who are recognized as unique, and who are seen as having significant contributions to make, become more engaged and passionate about their work. They light up to far brighter levels than ever before. Look for the hidden strengths and untapped potential of your existing employees and you'll see them transform before your eyes. It's almost like hiring a team of new creative superstars.

  • Encourage creative abrasion…but swat ferocious fireflies. Are you uncomfortable with conflict in the workplace? Don't be. Conflict is natural, expected, and, because it's a sign of diverse thinking on your team, even desirable. You can call a productive conflict "creative abrasion." However, leaders must take steps to keep the conflict focused on the issues and not let team members direct their ire at one another personally. And you must deal with ferocious fireflies: toxic, manipulative employees who gain the trust of others on the team only to viciously turn on them later. If you have one on your team, you must eliminate him or her immediately. Otherwise, it will be impossible to build a culture of trust.

  • Deal with other, more insidious "trust busters," too. Besides the presence of a ferocious firefly there are three other problematic behaviors that damage or limit trust. They are: 1) a refusal to share personal information; 2) sarcasm disguised as humor; and 3) one or more disengaged members of the team.
    In order to innovate, people must be able to connect with each other in a real, deeply personal way. If just one person refuses to open up or truly engage, or if he throws barbs at other team members under the guise of humor, he'll cause an erosion of trust. And in the absence of trust, no real progress can be made.

  • Make sure quieter fireflies have a chance to glow. You've no doubt noticed that certain people naturally dominate the discussion while others tend to hang back and go with the flow. Problem is, if your big talkers and "star employees" are always allowed to verbally run over the quieter/less visible members of your team, the same ideas and solutions will always get implemented. Some simple tricks can prevent extroverts from taking over and introverts (who may have some brilliant ideas under their hats) from getting overlooked.
    Insist that everyone jot down their initial ideas in silence and then share them, round-robin style. Impose a time limit so that no one is able to out-talk her quieter teammates. Sometimes, simply moving a predictably dominant person away from the front of the room and parking her next to a more reserved team member can change group dynamics dramatically.

  • Don't let team leaders keep too tight a lid on the jar. Just as fireflies' lights fade when they're held captive, a leader who dominates and controls his or her team will squash creativity. If you're the leader, you must take deliberate steps not to do this. For instance, don't sit at the head of the table. Use positive reinforcement (both verbally and nonverbally). Don't get into a prolonged conversation with only one or two other team members. If you're not very, very careful, you'll end up biasing the people in the room by virtue of your position of power.
    People have a natural tendency to defer to the leader, even when he or she is trying very hard not to be dominating. You have to watch everything: tone of voice, body language, facial expressions… everything.

  • Make meetings fun, exciting, and inviting. For instance, you might bring a creativity toy or two--something interesting enough to engage someone's hands but not so fascinating that it distracts them from the reason for the meeting. Use a whiteboard rather than the dreaded flipchart. And try techniques like mind-mapping (for left-brain thinkers) or brain-writing (for right-brain thinkers) to get creativity flowing.
    Boredom and drudgery do not facilitate innovation and problem solving. That's why it's so important to make sure you're holding light, fun, engaging meetings that people actually want to attend. If they don't want to be there, they won't be in the right frame of mind to accomplish anything worthwhile--and they won't.

  • Shine the light of accountability on your team. Even the most energetic, productive meeting means nothing if people don't follow up the decisions they reach with action. As a team, create a common picture of what personal accountability looks like. Then, delegate very specific assignments to very specific people. Finally, set a date for a follow-up meeting in which everyone must report on whether they fulfilled their commitments, and if not, why not.
    Uncomfortable as this may feel at first, it shows everyone that lame excuses won't be tolerated. This applies to the leader as well.

  • From time to time, escape the office for a creative excursion. When you really need to tap into your team's creative talents and boost their ability to work together, you need to get offsite. Yes, even in--in fact, especially in--these stressful times. Like excursions that truly create lifelong lessons and connections you can immediately apply to improve your performance as a team and a business unit.