Any organisation that wishes to become a long-term success story will know that in order to achieve that goal, they need to create an innovative work environment. Innovation can be a way of safeguarding a company’s future. And building a positive culture of innovation is a fiery X-factor that gives a business an edge against its competition and retains its ability to stay ahead.
Yet for all it’s talked about, innovation can still seem like a trendy buzzword with no real gravitas to it. What even is innovation in the workplace? Why is it important and what are its benefits? Or, more importantly, how should leaders go about creating this lusted-after ideal?
What Is Innovation In The Workplace?
Innovation in the workplace can mean different things to different industries, but we found this clear explanation on Workplace Innovation Europe useful, they define workplace innovation as:
“workplace practices and cultures which enable employees at all levels to use their knowledge, competences and creativity to the full.” Workplace Innovation Europe
Putting that into practice means building the ideal workplace environment where employees and leaders are able to tap into their creativity. Thinking of new exciting ideas, new products to sell or perhaps creating better systems that improve the efficiency of the company.
The ultimate aim of innovation is to continue to push the organisation into higher profits and a more successful way of working. Whilst staying ahead of the competition at all times.
Why Is Innovation Important In Business?
Innovation is the not-so-secret key to longevity in business. It’s common knowledge that most small businesses fail in their first year of business, but what about those organisations that have made it out of the gate and seen their decade anniversary? How do they make sure they survive?
Even with startups that manage to make it past ten years, only 21% will see their 20th anniversary. In fact, it’s estimated that only 0.5% of all companies make it to 100 years.
So, what do these illusive centennial companies have in common? Innovation.
Of course, they take the time to ensure they have solid foundations in place and always put the customer first. However, at their core, they are constantly striving to learn new things and stay ahead of the curve.
An organisation’s survival is directly correlated with the ability to innovate. The sad demise of Blockbuster is a stark warning to any arrogant leader who thinks their business model doesn’t need to constantly evolve and improve.
Benefits Of Innovation In The Workplace
The clear benefit of creating an innovation-first work environment is having a company that will grow easier and faster than ever before. Promoting an innovative business culture will make sure every single team member is working towards improving efficiency, profits and processes.
Other benefits of innovation in the workplace include increased competitiveness in the marketplace through the offering of a higher-quality product or service. Innovative companies are also better are making efficient use of all resources available. Organisations that focus on being creative are able to enter new markets and reach more potential customers, thereby growing the business.
What’s more, an innovative culture allows organisations to adapt quickly when changes happen, i.e. the pandemic and forced lockdowns. Companies that swiftly adopted hybrid work models and remote working best practices and took the time to learn how to collaborate effectively remotely were able to continue working without any drops in productivity.
How To Create An Innovative Work Environment
It’s clear an innovative work environment can only be a positive addition to any organisation, so how can leaders build an innovative culture? Here are the top eleven research-backed methods:
1. Clear Goals & Objectives
Without any set goals to aim for, organisations trying to create an innovative work environment might find themselves dealing with a scattergun approach from employees; Lots of ideas but no clear objective. This is a surefire route to a mess.
Leaders will need to get employees aligned and focused with a few simple objectives that everyone is aware of. Once the goals have been set, that’s when we want to start fostering the richness of creativity from employees.
2. Encourage Creativity
After years in the corporate world, many individuals find it hard to start thinking outside of the box. To create a culture of innovation, employees need to open their minds and start training their creative muscles.
Hold brainstorming sessions or run creative workshops to teach employees how to think for themselves again. Encourage everyone to come up with daily suggestions and ideas that are posted on a collaborative space, and get everyone out of their comfort space and into their creative zone.
Remember there’s no such thing as a bad idea!
The rare unicorn companies that survive 100+ years share a unique take on employing staff. ‘Centennial companies’ employ up to 70% of their staff part-time. This is purposely done to ensure a constant stream of new ideas that contribute to an innovative culture.
Leaders can learn from this approach by engaging the services of consultants, contractors and freelancers to get the same effect.
4. Take Risks
Teaching your employees that it’s OK to take risks can be very effective in the long term even if you do experience some failures in the process. It’s all part of creating an innovative work environment.
Encouraging workers to take managed risks, and then teaching them to learn from the outcomes and use the results as the basis for more ideas will increase their risk tolerance and build their confidence. The foundation of a successful organisation thrives on the ability to take risks and move forward.
5. Everyone’s Opinion Matters
Often, in corporate environments, more junior members of staff fear speaking up. Leaving more senior leaders to steamroll their way through meetings without actually listening to anyone’s opinion. This can have dire consequences for a company, if no one is brave enough to voice their true opinions about a new business idea then the company could be heading for financial disaster.
Ex-CEO of J.Crew, Mickey Drexler, knows this all too well. In 2017, J.Crew had seen sales falling over 10 consecutive quarters and in 2019, it was forced to close twenty of its retail stores. Sadly, with hindsight, Drexler admitted that he had underestimated the impact that technology and the internet would have on the fashion industry.
“I’ve never seen the speed of change as it is today,” Drexler said “If I could go back ten years, I might have done some things earlier.”
Perhaps if co-workers and employees had been able to voice their opinions and freely give advice, J.Crew would have innovated into eCommerce and could still have remained the leading fashion retailer it once was.
As a leader, your employees might be these very individuals who are hesitant to speak up for fear that their true thoughts will get ignored, or worse, be punished for them. If you want to create a true culture of innovation then you’ll need to spend time actively listening to employees and making sure every voice gets heard.
Promote idea sharing and create a safe space for employees to speak up in meetings, no matter their position.
6. Brainstorming Sessions
Individuals in an organisation are usually very busy carrying out their day-to-day responsibilities to be able to think creatively. That’s why it’s important to set aside time for innovative thinking in the workplace.
As a leader, you could enable this by scheduling group brainstorming sessions or innovation workshops.
Or, you could let them time block into their schedules, periods of time where they work on their own projects that could help the company, directly or indirectly.
Arguably one of the most innovative organisations in the world is famous for this. Google encourages all employees to spend about 20% of their time working on whatever projects they believe will most benefit Google.
Encouraging employees to think like they own the business could be the key driver in creating that illusive innovative workplace. Do all you can to culture and develop that entrepreneurial mindset.
7. Improve Employee Experience
Happy employees make for a happy workplace, and a positive workplace is far more likely to breed creativity. Look for ways to increase job satisfaction to boost employee engagement. And if you can’t see any opportunities, then take our earlier advice, and utilise external resources like specialist consultants.
8. Constructive Feedback
If you’re trying to promote innovation then you are essentially trying to build up confidence in your employees to believe in themselves and their ideas. Therefore, when individuals come to you with a new idea, however awful you personally might believe it to be, you must not rebuke it quickly.
First, discuss the idea with the rest of your team and see if it can be worked on and improved. perhaps your own personal blindspots have left you shortsighted? If the idea is truly awful, then provide that individual with helpful feedback and reward them for their effort.
The aim is to create a work environment where there is a constant flow of fresh ideas and creative juices at all times.
9. Know When To Quit
The infamous sunk-cost fallacy is a very real pitfall for decision-makers, but knowing when to quit is an underrated skill for business leaders to develop.
It doesn’t matter how much time or money has been invested into a project, if it’s doomed to fail, it’s always better to cut your losses and pivot in a new direction.
It’s OK to fail, but it’s not OK to let pride get in the way of admitting failure.
10. Slow Bureaucracy
A common issue reported by workers in larger organisations is the slow path to change. Outdated bureaucracy can lead to bottlenecks and frustrated employees.
Seek opportunities to cut out the bureaucracy and speed things up. Strive for an agile organisation that makes changes happen quickly.
11. Encourage Collaboration
The final tip to help promote an innovative work environment full of creation and excitement is to encourage employees to work together.
Every team member has different strengths and skills to bring to the workplace and it makes sense for organisations to capitalise on that mixing pot of knowledge to spark innovation.
It is by working together as a team that big changes happen and innovative businesses succeed.