16 Techniques to Encourage Innovation in the Workplace

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Encouraging workplace innovation not only helps companies stay on top of the market and defend their bottom lines: innovative workplaces are also happier workplaces, with consistently higher levels of employee satisfaction and retention.

Businesses are now paying more attention to the benefits of encouraging innovation than ever before. 63% of companies now have chief innovation officers to help drive new ideas and systems. However, doing it effectively is challenging and time-consuming.

In this post, we’ll take a look at 16 ways to encourage workplace innovation and how you can put these to use.

Why should companies care about their capacity to innovate?

Well, if you are reading this, I guess you are well aware of all the benefits of having a real innovation culture. As a quick reminder, here I am just listing 3 areas where encouraging innovation has an impact on businesses.

Competitive advantage

Companies that invest time, effort and money in finding new and better ways of doing things have an advantage over others in the market. It’s that simple.

For example, look at Amazon’s groundbreaking innovations in online purchase and delivery (and pretty much everything else). These innovations have given the company a significant advantage over its competitors, and are a major reason for the company’s ongoing dominance.

Innovation doesn’t just help a company to offer exciting new products and services to customers. It also allows companies to stay profitable and survive in the market.

Lego Bricks
LEGO – a great example of the competitive advantage through innovation. Source: Forbes

LEGO is another great example here. The beloved block toy company was facing a tough financial situation in the early 2000s, but gradually reclaimed its status as a market leader through a mixture of innovation, co-creation, and customer collaboration.

Customer centricity

Trialing new approaches to services and products ensures a constant focus on serving the needs of customers. This helps build a dedicated market base and ensures a company stays responsive to customer demand.

Think about Apple’s relentless customer focus. By keeping the company’s goal improving people’s lives through convenient and intuitive personal electronics, the company stayed on the path to market dominance.

Employee satisfaction and retention

An innovative working approach appeals to employees with higher levels of creativity and lateral thinking, helping companies to hold on to their best talent.

A great example here is Google. The tech giant’s approach to staff-driven innovation keeps its people engaged, happy, and motivated. This is one of the key reasons why the company is one of the most coveted places to work.

Google Office
Google’s offices. Source: Medium

Also, because innovation brings together wider groups of staff, innovation processes contribute significantly to a company’s social development, making staff feel valued, engaged, and more cohesive.

Southwest Airlines is another great example. The air carrier company has a great culture of social development, due in part to its commitment to involving all levels of its staff in innovative “blue-sky thinking” exercises.

How can companies encourage innovation and creativity in the workplace?

Encouraging innovation isn’t easy. From juggling competing company priorities to overcoming internal resistance and inertia, there are a lot of things that can get in the way.

No matter what industry you’re in, unlocking the innovative potential of your people – and your business more generally – comes down to a mix of management approaches, shared values, strategy, and resources.

Of course, there’s no single solution to how to encourage innovation. This process always differs from company to company and depends on things like workplace culture, ingrained systems, and the talents and skills present within your staff.

To help you out, we’ve got 16 techniques to encourage innovation in the workplace, broken down into the following subjects:

Let’s take a look at these subjects one by one, and think about how you could put them to use.

Leadership & management

Unsurprisingly, the majority of our recommended innovation techniques focus on leadership and management.

When it comes to innovation, the tone always comes from the top. Senior leaders need to find ways to encourage their staff to think about innovation every day and to take ownership and responsibility for new ideas and solutions.

Encouraging innovation via leadership and management can be a challenge, but we’ve got some specific techniques that can definitely help.

Empower your employees to think about tough problems

As Apple’s Steve Jobs said, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”

This is a key technique to encourage workplace innovation: empower your employees to think about the tough problems and reward staff for working towards solutions.

People are as innovative as you allow them to be. If you empower your staff to chase their “aha moments”, you’ll soon find yourself with a more dynamic and innovative workplace.

Adopt a non-hierarchical management approach

When it comes to encouraging workplace innovation, a strict hierarchy can be a real killer.

If your staff work deferentially and only think about innovation when specifically tasked to do so, you’ll never be able to reach your company’s full potential.

The most innovative companies have a flat – but strong – management approach, allowing employees to break down silos and barriers between work areas. A lot of innovation comes from cross-pollination between teams and divisions, and from the sharing of ideas and problems.

Tesla is a great example here. Elon Musk’s radically flat management structure demands a hands-on approach from senior management and asks employees to work across departments in subject-specific ways.

Tesla Alon Musk
Tesla’s Elon Musk. Source: Inside EVs

Give your staff a reason to care

To be truly innovative, your employees need some skin in the game. They shouldn’t think about innovation as something for senior management to think about – instead, innovation should be part of everyone’s job description.

Look for ways to incentivize staff to think about innovation, and bring them along the journey by developing a company-wide innovation strategy (more on this below).

A great example is DHL. The delivery company encourages staff to work with groups of customers and clients to come up with solutions to complex issues like delivery sequencing and accessing remote areas. The end result is a more innovation-focused pool of employees.

Find and motivate intrapreneurs

Intrapreneurs are staff who are already within your organization and have the mindset and the skills to innovate. Think of them as entrepreneurs who happen to already work for you.

Finding and motivating intrapreneurs within your business is an excellent way to encourage a more innovative approach to problem-solving.

For example, the software company Fishbowl spends a lot of time and effort locating and recognizing intrapreneurs within the company and uses these employees as a valuable innovation resource.

Encourage your people to think about innovation on a daily basis

Innovation shouldn’t be something people think about only during retreats and workshops. If thinking about new ways of doing things is seen only as an occasional exercise, you’ll never be able to access the full potential of your employees’ creativity and imagination.

Instead, make room for your staff to consider innovation as part of their daily tasks. For example, manufacturing giant 3M is famous for giving its employees a 15% time allowance every day for constructive daydreaming.

3m Post It
Company 3M has a 15% approach to innovation. Source: Innovation Excellence

Of course, this doesn’t mean handing out a 15% buffer for employees to just snooze at their desks. You should ask your people to demonstrate the results of these innovation sessions.

Innovation strategy

Workplace innovation needs to be strategic and should be a core part of your company’s DNA.

No matter what their responsibilities are, every single one of your people should be able to draw a straight line between the company innovation strategy and the contents of his or her day-to-day job.

Develop an innovation strategy – and use it

An innovation strategy sets out guiding principles for how your company will grow its market share through product and service innovation. A good strategy helps to clarify what is expected of employees at every level of your company when it comes to problem-solving.

By developing an innovation strategy, leadership provides employees with certainty about the core role of innovation and reinforces the idea that innovation is everyone’s responsibility.

Developing an innovation strategy also forces senior management to think about what innovation means to them, and to state in clear terms how their employees should contribute new ideas for products, systems, and services.

Microsoft is an excellent example of how to put an innovation strategy to use. By making its strategy a core part of employee responsibilities, Microsoft helps its employees at every level to make innovation a key part of what they do.

Accept failure and make it the norm

It’s an unavoidable fact that innovation carries the risk of failure. For every example of world-changing innovation, there’s a whole trash heap of failed ideas.

Rather than running from this fact, companies need to come to peace with it. Acknowledge the possibility of failure, dedramatize it and encourage risky initiatives to help employees approach innovation in a more open and inventive way.

That’s why market leaders like Coke, Netflix, and Amazon never shy away from acknowledging their past failures.

New Coke Failure
New Coke, one of the classic failures of innovation. Source: CBS News

As Coca-Cola CEO James Quincey puts it, “If we’re not making mistakes, we’re not trying hard enough.” And anyway, while the New Coke fiasco grabbed a bunch of headlines, in the end it hardly put a dent in Coke’s position as a market leader.

Willingness to experiment

In order to be truly innovative, companies need to be willing to experiment.

Whether this is through customer co-creation, identifying market adjacencies, or participating in an innovation hub, companies must demonstrate an appetite for new ways of doing things.

Look for market adjacencies

A key aspect of innovation is thinking about market adjacencies.

Adjacencies are new products or markets that are closely related to the work a company is currently engaged in, but are different enough to represent new value for the company. By moving into these areas, a company can create new customers and solidify its market position.

For example, think about Disney’s recent foray into streaming media. The media giant already produces an incredible amount of popular content, so stepping into the market adjacency of a platform for streaming made a lot of sense.

Embrace co-creation and open innovation opportunities

When it comes to innovation, don’t be afraid to get your customers involved, too. After all, your diehard fans are the most likely people to have great ideas for new products and services – especially if they use your services and products every day.

A great example here is Starbucks, which ran its “My Starbucks Idea” portal for a decade from 2007 to 2017, receiving over 150,000 suggestions from dedicated Starbucks fans as a result.

This not only resulted in top-selling Starbucks products like Hazelnut Macchiatos and pumpkin spice lattes but also gave Starbucks the chance to build a valuable community of superfans for market research purposes.

My Starbucks Idea Platform
The ‘My Starbucks Idea’ platform. Source: The Innovation Benchmark

Participate in an innovation hub

Innovation hubs are places for business representatives to get together and share approaches to innovation. Having grown in popularity over the last decade, there are now hundreds of these hubs around the world.

The concept of an innovation hub recognizes the importance of a multidisciplinary approach to innovation and shows the importance of collaboration in problem-solving. Innovation hubs can be a great way to encourage “blue-sky” thinking.

Take a look at the innovation hubs near you, and think about how you and your teams could participate.

Open communication

Getting innovation right takes a commitment to open communication and transparency.

To make innovation a real part of your workplace culture, your staff need to know senior management is being open about the need for innovation, and the potential benefits for the company as a result.

Be transparent

Your staff need clear, consistent information about the company’s innovation goals, and about the potential benefits for employees if they get things right. A key part of this is developing an innovation strategy, and ensuring open communication about innovation.

Mobile payments company Square takes this to an extreme, requiring meeting notes for every meeting involving more than two people to be publicly shared across the company. This rule has helped promote innovation by making every employee aware of the company’s problem-solving.

Now, you probably don’t have to be that extreme. Still, you should think about how to adopt an open communication approach when it comes to innovation.  

Staff wellbeing

Innovation isn’t just about encouraging your staff to think laterally: it’s also about making sure that when your employees are being creative, they don’t feel threatened or at risk.

There are two great ways to do this. First, you can recognize and reward innovations, and second, try to ensure staff psychological safety.

Recognize and reward successful innovations

To get the best out of your people when it comes to innovation, you need a way to recognize and reward successful new ideas – especially when they have the potential to save the company money or boost revenue.

This can be as simple as providing public recognition, for example, giving out awards at all-hands meetings. Though, if you also feel like offering flashy rewards, we’re sure your staff won’t mind!

Westin Hotel
Westin Hotels rewards innovative employees with paid vacations. Source: Marriott

Westin Hotels is a great example here. Every quarter, the hotel chain sends its top five innovators on a paid five-day trip, providing them with public acknowledgment and a significant reward for valuable ideas.

Ensure staff psychological safety

This is a crucial element to get right. After all, employees don’t want to feel like attempts at innovation could threaten their jobs if it goes wrong.

Your staff members need to be able to be honest and forthright about new product and systems suggestions, without fear of recrimination or adverse effects on their jobs.

So, one of the first things you should do when encouraging innovation is to set clear ground rules and let people know that their positions won’t be at risk if the innovation exercise isn’t a success.

Workplace design and layout

There’s a growing recognition that the physical working environment is just as important as management or leadership when it comes to encouraging innovation.

Fortunately, there are some practical steps you can take here.

Organize your office for maximum innovation

Office design and layout can make a huge difference when it comes to innovation. Even something as simple as deciding where particular teams should sit can have a massive effect on creativity and collaboration.

Let’s look again at Google.

Google Workplace
Google’s innovative office design. Source: Workspace Design

Google’s groundbreaking office designs include features like putting greens, vintage subway cars, and revolving bookcases. However, you don’t have to invest in gimmicks to be like Google.

Instead, you can learn from Google’s approach to putting teams together to learn from each other, and from creating spaces where informal meetings and information sharing is more likely to happen.

These design choices don’t need to be complicated – it can be as simple as reorganizing your seating chart to encourage staff to share ideas and knowledge.

Tools and software

Finally, your staff also need access to the right tools to support innovation.

There are two reasons for this. First, using the right set of tools can save time and effort, freeing your staff up to innovate. Second, a good set of innovation software can guide your staff in taking an idea through from concept to implementation.

Use tools to create time and space to innovate

There’s an incredible range of time-saving softwares available to businesses. Whether it’s project management software, online collaboration platforms, or even cloud accounting products, it’s never been easier to save time on basic processes.

These software products aren’t just helpful with avoiding headaches – they can also free up your staff to do the kind of creative and innovative thinking they didn’t have time for before.

So, take a look at the range of software products out there, and think about how you could put the inevitable time savings to use.

Consider innovation software

Innovation and creative thinking isn’t a question of natural talent. With the right tools, processes, and methods, anyone can be an innovator and find new solutions to complex problems.

This is where ideas and innovation management software can help. By structuring ideation, collaboration, communication and setting parameters for problem-solving, the right software can foster a real innovation culture across your whole company.

True innovation takes commitment and perseverance

Despite what the business coaches might say, encouraging innovation isn’t all sunshine and rainbows.

Moving towards an innovative workplace takes time, hard work, and a certain amount of forgiveness for error and failure. As we’ve seen, even successful and highly innovative companies still have their fair share of failures. Let’s not forget the Zune.

As some observers have noted, many of the necessary ingredients of workplace innovation also involve juggling some downsides. For example:

  • encouraging employee collaboration must be balanced against maintaining individual accountability, and leaving room for those lone wolves who get their best work done by going solo
  • avoiding workplace hierarchies requires strong leadership, a trusting approach to management, and a commitment to hiring highly motivated people
  • before a company can experiment with innovation, it has to get the day-to-day operations on track first

So, while you’re working to encourage workplace innovation, don’t be surprised if the changes are harder to implement than you thought.

Innovation can be a long game. Whether you’re chasing incremental innovation or radical innovation, things will probably take longer than you realize.