I’ve read about some really cool ideas to encourage innovation and creative thinking in the workplace, like (the soon to be renamed) FedEx Days. That’s the quarterly practice at Australian software company Atlassian that gives employees a full 24 hours to work on and deliver any work-related project. So if they have a great—but radical—idea or a solution to a problem that’s been bothering them, they are given the time to bring their ideas to life. It’s an awesome way to foster creativity, which is why it’s been picked up by a number of other organizations. But it isn’t exactly the most new-supervisor-friendly idea. More power to you if you can pitch this to your boss as an entry-level manager and get it instated, but in most cases, you’ll probably have to prove yourself as a team leader before your organization will give you that kind of leeway.
Fortunately, there are a number of ways to inspire innovation that won’t require your CEO to sign off first. Follow these tips (and the elaborated advice that follows) to get your team’s creative juices flowing:
- Eradicate fear. Nothing stymies innovation like fear. If your employees are afraid of making mistakes—because they’ll be fired, publically reprimanded or anything else along those lines—don’t expect them to take any chances with outside-the-box ideas. The same goes for fear of embarrassment. If you or a bullying co-worker shoots down others’ ideas, they’ll quickly stop sharing them.
Eliminate fear of failure by emphasizing that mistakes are a likely (if not necessary) part of innovation. Share this motto with your team: “The person who doesn’t make mistakes is unlikely to make anything.” Eliminate fear of judgment by keeping an open mind to all ideas and not allowing other team members to scoff at them.
- Reward creativity. Celebrate creative thinking, both on an individual and a team-wide level. You don’t need a big budget to do so. The reward could be a small monetary gift like a $10 certificate to a book store (“So you can keep expanding your mind!”) or something silly like a pack of Smarties candies. And of course, you should always include a heartfelt “Thank you!” to your staff for putting themselves out there by sharing innovative ideas.
But what if an innovative idea flops? Reward that too! Rotate a “Heroic Failure” trophy to employees who take big risks. Not only will it show that you value the effort even though it didn’t work out this time, it will also add levity to the situation and thus help eradicate fear of future failure.
- Encourage questions. Creative minds question. And they question all the time—not just during scheduled “innovation times.” Ensure that your workplace culture embraces questioning by listening patiently and responding thoughtfully to employees’ questions. Model questioning to your staff too; just because you’re the boss doesn’t mean you have all the answers.
- Schedule pre-brainstorming time. Brainstorming meetings can be a waste of time if you announce the problem and objectives to unprepared attendees. Sure, sometimes you’ll get lucky and somepeople are really good at thinking on their feet, but most people do better with a bit of time to mull things over.
Instead, pose the question and objectives to your team 24 hours to one week ahead of the official brainstorming meeting. Assign a specific number of ideas that each employee has to bring to the meeting. Example: “For Tuesday’s 10 a.m. meeting, bring a list of five potential ways to reach younger customers. Crazy suggestions welcome!” During the meeting, you can discuss the ideas to find the best contenders.
- Mix up teams. Don’t allow the same people to pair or group up for every project. That can cause teams to get into a creative rut. Instead, match up employees from different backgrounds or with different perspectives. If possible, work with another department to get a whole new set of viewpoints. If your team is too small to mix up and there’s no other department available, have people change roles. For example, the person who normally leads steps back and takes notes, while a more reserved team member takes the lead. That kind of change can yield surprising results.
- Seek rough-draft ideas first. Don’t expect perfect, flushed-out ideas from the get-go. If someone can come up with one of those during early stages of innovation, the idea is probably an obvious one. Instead, expect imperfect ideas. They won’t meet every criterion. They might not fall within your budget, or they might require more time or manpower than you have on hand—but that’s OK because they’re just starting points. As a team you can take those imperfect ideas and tweak them into awesomely innovative plans.
- Provide quiet places to think. A lot of people are under the impression that creativity and innovation only flourish in collaborative team environments. However, research indicates that many people are more creative when they are allowed to work on their own, free from interruption. While you probably can’t reconfigure your office set-up, you can enforce quiet areas or, like the web application company 37signals, quiet hours. Key: Don’t assume that employees who appear to be daydreaming are off task. As long as they get their work done, allow them to sit and think quietly without fear of reprimand; that’s how many innovative ideas are born.
- Assign devil’s advocates. While a bunch of yes-men and yes-women can make for easy and quick decisions, they aren’t likely to produce a lot of innovative ideas. If your team members shy away from dissent, assign one or two people in every meeting to act as devil’s advocates. Or give them more interesting titles, like “Extreme Creativity Maven” or “Outrageous Ideameister” Whatever you call them, they should ask plenty of “What if …” questions that make the team think and consider alternatives.
Best bet: To ensure that your employees don’t robotically agree with everything you suggest, hold back your opinion and ideas. If you announce them too early, you team may just agree with you. If you withhold your ideas, they’ll have to come up with their own.
- Be approachable. Your staff should feel comfortable coming to you with big, innovative ideas. To make that happen, you have to be known as an open-minded, attentive listener. If you seem too busy, agitated or hesitant to consider outside-the-box ideas, no one will bother to share them with you. Regularly remind your staff that you welcome their ideas and insight. Offer an alternative method of submitting ideas too, in case you have shy employees who are reluctant to speak up. That can be a physical suggestion box or an online survey that employees can submit anonymously, if they wish.
- Don’t overwork your staff. When employees are tired or stressed, they can’t think creatively. Eliminate any ineffective, inefficient or outdated tasks that waste employees’ time. When possible, offer to step in and help out your staff. And if your people really are being worked too hard, this is one area where you should seek your boss’s approval: it might be time to hire a new team member.
What other advice do you have for fostering innovation?