In mature businesses, the primary success metric is profit, not innovation.

Once a profitable operation is established, it’s all too easy to forget about innovation.

Often, when a business reaches maturity, its organizational structures evolve to guide the company to more efficient operation, and this shift tends to steer employees away from pursuing innovation and discovery. When employees are taught to seek efficiencies based on existing assets and processes, the drive to innovate tends to fall by the wayside. It’s good for the short-term reports to shareholders, but can be problematic over the long term.

What’s more, leadership development programs may not address innovation at all. As a result, the drive to innovate can be dead and buried by the time an employee reaches a position of leadership. Yet innovation is everywhere in the world, and it’s what propels people and businesses forward. How can leaders encourage innovation and help create a culture in which innovation is prized?

Executive Buy-In Mandatory for a Culture That Promotes Innovation

Executives can’t just say they’re “for” innovation. If their actions don’t back that up, if they are in the habit of shooting down innovative ideas before they can be developed, frontline employees get the message loud and clear: there’s no real support for innovation, so why bother?

Leaders must not only say they are in favor of innovation, they must also take steps that back up that sentiment. They must set aside resources for use on innovation, and they must accept occasional failure as part of the process. Most of all, they must listen to employees and partners, dig deeper, and genuinely consider the innovative ideas people come up with.

Necessary Conditions for Innovation to Thrive

Overall company culture can be a determining factor in whether or not innovation thrives. If everyone is afraid of stepping out of line or if executive egos won’t bear the self-examination that results when a junior employee comes up with a terrific innovation, then innovation won’t happen. The company may adopt innovations that other companies have developed, but that’s not the same thing.

This is what employees see when they work in a culture that doesn’t value innovation.

Companies that say they reward innovation should do exactly that. They should actively solicit ideas, encourage development of the best of them, and reward innovators with recognition and in some cases monetarily. People don’t necessarily want fame and fortune for their innovation that cuts a process time in half, but they do want credit for it, and they want it reflected on their performance reviews.

Ask the Right Questions, Listen to the Answers

Many leadership coaching programs help leaders learn to listen better and communicate better – skills that are absolutely essential to the innovative company. Good communication can be hard work, but it pays off. Here are some good questions leaders can ask their teams to get the conversation started about innovation:

  • What is something good that happened since we talked last?
  • What went wrong since we last talked, and how did you learn from it?
  • What have you found that was broken, and how did you try to fix it?
  • What are some ways you have helped motivate others?
  • Are there any roadblocks that I could help clear for you?

Naturally, these questions are meaningless if you don’t genuinely and sincerely listen to the answers and be prepared to act on them. As any leadership coach will tell you, follow-through is essential. Otherwise, such questions and answers are a waste of time.

The harsh truth is that lack of innovation within a company indicates a lack of good leadership. People may still innovate on their own, to make their own workday easier, but they won’t feel any need to share those innovations with their leaders. Innovation requires buy-in at every organizational level, and not just empty words.

Leadership development programs in companies that say they value innovation must teach leaders how to go beyond verbally “supporting” innovation. Leaders must also learn specific steps to take both tactically and strategically to genuinely support innovation. Otherwise, it will never happen.

If you are interested in developing a culture of innovation in your organization, I encourage you to check out my books, particularly Cultural Transformations: Lessons of Leadership and Corporate Reinvention. Innovative ideas need a culture of acceptance and reward to be able to fulfill their promise.

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