Motivating Innovation

By Kathy Gurchiek Sep 28, 2009

Forward thinkers foster a culture of innovation to gain competitive advantage, and their efforts can take many forms—from new products and market expansion to ways of doing business. Managers can pave the way to profits by creating an innovative environment that instills freedom and trust, and celebrates successes and failures.

Organizations and employees require five core values for innovation to occur, according to Judy Estrin, author of Closing the Innovation Gap: Reigniting the Spark of Creativity in a Global Economy (McGraw-Hill, 2008):

  • Curiosity and a natural ability to question the status quo.
  • Risk-taking and a willingness to learn from failure.
  • Openness. Organizations with strong silos tend to be less innovative, Estrin says.
  • Patience, tenacity and the sense of giving an idea a chance to grow.
  • Trust, underpinning the other values.

Incremental innovations are customer- or process-driven. They keep current customers happy and organizations competitive and efficient.

But leaders also need to look at what’s going to drive their future business, including new products or markets, Estrin says. “Disruptive” or “breakthrough” innovations drive future growth. They call for looking at problems a different way, she says, pointing to the iPod as the result of rethinking portable music.

A culture that embraces both types of innovation features small groups released from daily restrictions, she insists. Employees performing heads-down business don’t have the time or mind-set for big-picture innovation.

Fostering Curiosity

“Innovators need more freedom to wander around,” Estrin says. “You can only measure [innovation] in hindsight. When it’s happening, you don’t necessarily know where you’re going”; measuring can “overly constrain the innovation.

“They plan failure into their schedules because they do not believe you can do something right the first time. … You want to fail fast, and they want to learn from that failure and move on.”

Don’t personalize failure, recommends Lori McAdams, Pixar’s vice president of HR. “We don’t tie it to the individual. We just talk about it in the [appropriate internal] forum”: in a team meeting, with a small group or with the affected individual.

Pixar’s 1,000 employees also learn “plussing” in orientation and training.

When an idea is offered, it’s restated and added to, she explains. “We don’t say ‘no, but.’ We say ‘yes, and.’

“ ‘Yes, that would work and if we also blah, blah, blah.’ The good stuff continues, and the bad stuff goes away. Without being judgmental, you get to a better solution.”

Being Open

Helping teams succeed includes recognizing that innovation’s different stages may require different kinds of support—teams working on the front end developing a new idea may be hampered by too much process management, while those on the final stages may benefit from process improvement standardization, according to the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2009 Workplace Visions article, “Innovative Work Teams in a Challenging Business Environment.”

Tools to help foster the collaboration process can be as simple as allowing off-site work or setting aside a room for employee input on a project.

Some employees at The San Jose Group doubted their ideas were welcome, despite what they were told, until the company began giving tangible rewards. But innovation doesn’t have to be expensive, says Tony Zamora, manager of HR and administration at the Chicago-based consortium of marketing communications companies aimed at Spanish-speaking Americans. Because it’s watching the bottom line during the turbulent economy, his organization rewards employees with extra days off, or occasionally gives gift cards or Visa check cards, for innovative ideas.

To truly value innovation, leaders must empower workers. They must be explicit in what they mean by innovation and why it’s important to survival—and they should share examples of ideas. It’s important, too, to question the company’s basic operating assumptions, says Joe Frontiera, managing partner of West Virginia-based Meno Consulting, which focuses on culture change.

Establishing Trust

An environment where employees feel safe broaching ideas, trying new things, taking risks and failing is imperative to fostering a culture of innovation, and trust is key for such a culture to take root.

“Many people are scared to discuss their opinions because it might fail, so we encourage them to discuss all ideas,” says Zamora. “Putting their heads together, we can make things work.”

It takes a while to implement ideas and show employees their work makes a difference, Zamora acknowledges. But, “if you’re not afraid of the change, it’s highly worth it.”

The author is associate editor for HR News.


Tips for Fostering Innovation

The following suggestions can help foster a culture of innovation:

  • Explicitly discuss definitions of innovation, give examples and explain why innovation is important to the organization’s survival.
  • Consider incremental and future-growth innovations.
  • Treat innovation as a key source of economic growth, much like machinery, capital, labor-force size and skills—as an investment, not an expense.
  • Determine barriers to innovation; identify systems to foster an exchange of ideas and information.
  • Verbally solicit ideas from employees at weekly meetings.
  • Set up workshops to generate ideas.
  • Critique each other in a non-threatening way.
  • Publicize implemented ideas: how they save money, make the company more efficient or lead to new products.
  • Establish rewards.
  • Recognize that innovation can happen on a small scale.
  • Plan for and celebrate failure.
  • Praise all suggestions to develop an atmosphere in which employees feel safe to voice ideas.
  • Get cross-functional involvement to gain buy-in from various departments.

Innovation Busters

“Not everyone will adore and support you” for trying to be innovative, observes Joni Daniels of Daniels & Associates, a Baltimore-based organizational development and management training company. Be prepared to address the following factors that Daniels says inhibit innovation:

  • A hectic environment where there is no time for reflection.
  • A sterile environment where creativity is not stimulated.
  • Rigid rules and barriers that prevent people from connecting.
  • Stress that saps creative energy.
  • Routines that limit responses.
  • Egos that keep organizations stuck.
  • Fear of self-expression.
  • Negative self-thinking.

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