You know that innovation in your business carries risk. That new product might fail. The creative marketing campaign might bomb. So you cautiously invest in these efforts, attempting to control any damage which might result.

But you may not have realized that innovation is also personally risky for your employees. Despite your best efforts to encourage your folks to be creative and “think outside the box,” they experience personal turmoil in actually doing it.

Here’s why:

Your employees typically are paid to … do their job. All the feedback they get is around whether the job got done properly and had the best result. Were customers served?  Was a service delivered? Was the product created properly? Were internal and external partners happy?

It’s the stuff you can actually capture in a job description.

But innovation, by its very nature, goes outside the stuff that’s easy to describe. You might make an attempt to include it, perhaps with a phrase like “… and contribute to constant improvement in process and products.”

It leaves massive room for interpretation.

The biggest problem is that feedback on this is exceedingly slow. If my main job is to product 100 widgets a day, I know constantly whether I’m on track – for production and for quality. But if I think up an idea that makes the widget or its production better, it might be months or even years before I see the benefit.

That’s because the organization doesn’t want to be too responsive to innovative ideas. Suggestions need to be evaluated at several levels, tested, and then institutionalized.  Perhaps only one out of ten ideas passes all the tests. That’s fine, from management’s point of view. But to the individual it can be a devastating wave of negative feedback.  And tremendously slow.

How do you bridge the gap? How do you encourage creativity in your workers and sustain it over the long-term?

The first step is to put a structure in place to encourage innovation. State it as part of peoples’ jobs. Emphasize the areas where you desire the most creativity. Sure, put a little structure to it, like asking the employee to think through what the business benefit of the idea might be. But don’t put too many barriers in place.

Second, give immediate, appropriate and timely support for the mere act of bringing forth innovation. This means that each manager and supervisor needs to understand their role is critical in giving support and feedback. Rather than putting barriers in place, they need to encourage and help refine ideas.  It needs to become a part of each team’s ongoing conversations.

Third, give high level recognition for creativity, even when it “fails.” That’s because the mere act of exploring new directions helps your organization to grow and learn, even when the individual idea itself doesn’t see the light of day. Focus on the value of learning, which reinforces your deeper goal behind what you hope to result from these efforts:

Fourth, track these efforts. What gets measured gets done, so your challenge is to find a way to have your people recognize that innovation actually does show up in what you’re paying attention to.

If you can give people monetary rewards for their efforts, great. But it’s tricky territory, and perhaps worthy of a whole discussion on its own.

What are you doing to make innovation less risky for the individuals in your organization?


This post first appeared in InnovatioNews on 23 Sept 2015

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