Nothing stymies innovation like fear. If your employees are afraid of making mistakes—because they’ll be fired, publicly reprimanded or anything else along those lines—don’t expect them to take any chances with outside-the-box ideas.
The same goes for fear of embarrassment. If you or a bullying co-worker shoots down others’ ideas, they’ll quickly stop sharing them. Eliminate fear of failure by emphasizing that mistakes are a likely (if not necessary) part of innovation. Share this motto with your team: “The person who doesn’t make mistakes is unlikely to make anything.” Eliminate fear of judgment by keeping an open mind to all ideas and not allowing team members to scoff at one another.
Celebrate creative thinking, both on an individual and a team-wide level. You don’t need a big budget to do so. The reward could be a small monetary gift like a $10 certificate to a book store (“So you can keep expanding your mind!”) or something silly like a pack of Smarties candies. And of course, you should always include a heartfelt “Thank you!” to your staff for putting themselves out there by sharing innovative ideas. But what if an innovative idea flops? Reward that too! Praise employees who take big risks. It will show that you value the effort even though it didn’t work out this time.
Creative minds question. And they question all the time—not just during scheduled “innovation times.” Ensure that your workplace culture embraces questioning by listening patiently and responding thoughtfully to employees’ questions. Model questioning to your staff too; just because you’re the boss doesn’t mean you have all the answers.
Schedule pre-brainstorming time. Brainstorming meetings can be a waste of time if you announce the problem and objectives to unprepared attendees. Sure, sometimes you’ll get lucky and some people are really good at thinking on their feet, but most people do better with a bit of time to mull things over. Instead, pose the question and objectives to your team 24 hours to one week ahead of the official brainstorming meeting. Assign a specific number of ideas that each employee has to bring to the meeting. Example: “For Tuesday’s 10 a.m. meeting, bring a list of five potential ways to reach younger customers. Crazy suggestions welcome!” During the meeting, you can discuss the ideas to find the best contenders.
Mix up teams
Don’t allow the same people to pair or group up for every project. That can cause teams to get into a creative rut. Instead, match up employees from different backgrounds or with different perspectives. If possible, work with another department to get a whole new set of viewpoints. If your team is too small to mix up and there’s no other department available, have people change roles. For example, the person who normally leads steps back and takes notes, while a more reserved team member takes the lead. That kind of change can yield surprising results.
Seek rough-draft ideas first
Don’t expect perfect, flushed-out ideas from the get-go. If someone can come up with one of those during early stages of innovation, the idea is probably an obvious one. Instead, expect imperfect ideas. They won’t meet every criterion. They might not fall within your budget, or they might require more time or manpower than you have on hand—but that’s OK because they’re just starting points. As a team you can take those imperfect ideas and tweak them into awesomely innovative plans.
Your staff should feel comfortable coming to you with big, innovative ideas. To make that happen, you have to be known as an open-minded, attentive listener. If you seem too busy, agitated or hesitant to consider outside-the-box ideas, no one will bother to share them with you. Regularly remind your staff that you welcome their ideas and insight. Offer an alternative method of submitting ideas too, in case you have shy employees who are reluctant to speak up. That can be a physical suggestion box or an online survey that employees can submit anonymously, if they wish.
Don’t overwork your staff
When employees are tired or stressed, they can’t think creatively. Eliminate any ineffective, inefficient or outdated tasks that waste employees’ time. When possible, offer to step in and help out your staff. And if your people really are being worked too hard, this is one area where you should seek your boss’s approval: it might be time to hire a new team member.
What other advice do you have for fostering innovation?