Innovation… my favorite [dirty] word. It gets a bad rep in organizations – it’s scary and comes with a tons-of-extra-hours connotation. Our mind goes to products, revenue, and time. 

But really, innovation is an “um, duh, why didn’t I think of that?!” idea. And, like most other things… innovation is a competency. It’s a muscle; the more you work at it, the stronger it gets.

Take whiskey ice cubes. They’re genius, but they’re not rocket-science genius. They’re an “ugh, my whiskey keeps getting watered down. I wish I could put something cold in here that wouldn’t dilute my drink.” That’s innovation.

Innovation – in its most simplistic form – is an IDEA. 

“Oh no, no. I can’t be part of an innovation team.” You can’t be part of a team that generates ideas? I can’t tell you how many “ideas” I hear at work. Ideas are innovations. Let’s take the icky-ness out of that word. 

But innovation is how everything in any organization came to be.

Process improvements. New products. The creation of new teams. 

It doesn’t always have to mean a big, scary, daunting assignment where you build a prototype and take it to a product team and pitch it up the hierarchy and try to sell the CEO on your idea. (OK, sure – sometimes it is).

You’ve probably heard “innovation comes from the bottom.” And it’s true.

Your entry level employees and your newest team members are probably among the most innovative in your organization.

Wait, what?

We often ask interviewees what they’ve accomplished that they’re proud of; what innovations (in other words) they’ve brought to their organizations. Interviewees share stories of process improvements, or products they’ve helped to launch. That excites interviewers. We LOOK for this type of response — we write it and and we underline it 3 times. “This person is efficient,” we think. We want them to become our newest hires.

Then, after 6 rounds of interviews, of poking, prodding and agonizing over the process… they walk through the door with a fresh set of eyes, and often, unintentionally, their creativity is stifled. They hear things like, “we’ve tried that before – it didn’t work” or “that’s not how we do things around here.” I’m not pointing fingers; I’ve been guilty of saying these words.

And don’t overlook your entry-level employees who likely come in with a very narrow view of how businesses operate. Their ideas aren’t tainted by the “possibilities” and “cost” associated with presenting new ideas in a business setting.

So, unless you tried it last month – and I truly mean last month – and NOTHING has changed between now and then – no new staff, no new products, no new clients, “we tried that before” bears no weight. (After all, didn’t 2020 show us how innovative we really can be and just how quickly?)

My top suggestion for managers?

(1) Eliminate any words from your vocabulary that diminishes an idea. Remove “we’ve tried that” or “it won’t work here.” Once people hear that enough, they stop bringing new ideas to the table. 

(2) Allow your employees to challenge your thinking. And you, respectfully, should challenge theirs. “How do you think we could on-board other team members? How would this affect X team?” They may not be fully thought-out ideas, but giving your employees an opportunity to both present AND bring to fruition their ideas will start to shift your culture into one that begs for new ideas.

(3) Remember – what gets recognized get’s repeated. Recognizing people who present new ideas tells your employees that’s what the company is looking for — and who doesn’t want their work to be recognized?

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