Here’s why: Although innovative leaps do sometimes come directly from the CEO, this is less common than business profiles and biographies make it seem. More commonly, successful leaders drive innovation via their people: by inspiring and sustaining their employees in ways that promote this essential discipline.
Though I’ve spelled out my principles for driving innovation before in these pages, I haven’t hit directly on how to spread these principles companywide. I’d like to remedy that now with a look at how my principles of innovation can lead to a company culture where every employee can be an innovation powerhouse.
1. Encourage innovation in non-obvious areas. Your employees’ mental picture of innovation is probably limited to the market-facing innovative leaps that grab all the headlines. (Elon Musk’s rocket flights, Alexa, etc.) Getting employees to expand this definition is essential, so you should explicitly spell out for them the three distinct areas that are ripe for innovation–product, process and business model–and let them know you’re looking for contributions in any of the three. (Product is what you sell or make; process is how you make it and how you sell it; business model is how your company is conceptualized and organized.)
2. Encourage the search for accidental innovation. Not all innovation is intentional. If you can get your employees to be on the lookout for innovation potential in mistakes they’ve made and happy accidents the observe, it can pay off handily. If not, they’ll continue to ignore the accidental leaps that occur–or, worse, bury these accidental improvements as being evidence of their, or their co-workers’, errors.
3. Encourage an attitude of dissatisfaction. This negative-sounding dictum (which no doubt violates the teachings of spiritual leaders and self-help gurus alike) can mean the difference for a company between life and death. Before your product or product line becomes the victim of the next wave of Uberization or Amazonization in your industry, encourage employees to look at what’s missing in your company offerings themselves, even if means questioning what they may think are sacred, untouchable cows.
4. Strive to build a blame-free culture. This is one of my better-known principles for improvement of all types, and it’s particularly important if you want to encourage innovation. Employees universally feel safer going with the status quo than attempting innovation, because it’s less likely to lead to visible errors (and thus, at many companies, blame). So if you want employees to experiment, they have to know that their innovative efforts will be free from repercussions. (It may be obvious, but I’m not talking about doing away with blame or judgment in cases of ethical lapses, safety violations, and the like.)