Almost overnight, Covid-19 has flipped the world on its axis and shaken business to its core. Thanks to the chaos and uncertainty ripping its way through people’s anxious brains right now, it’s become blindingly obvious that none of us can go on doing business as usual - not right now, and not when the dust finally settles and we return to our offices.
This means that the need to respect, expect and protect innovation and breakthrough thinking is more critical to a business’s survival than ever. Remaining static, polishing the status quo, and fearing change is no longer a viable option.
Innovation is great ideas in action
The word “innovation” can strike fear into the hearts of many. But it’s important to remember that being innovative isn’t about becoming the next Bezos, Musk, Amazon or Uber. It’s about looking at the way systems, processes and products have been done for donkeys and challenging them. It’s about looking at the stuff around you from a fresh, daring, scary, naive perspective and questioning it. It’s about coming up with novel, surprising and engaging things you can offer your customers, that are different to what they expect, and will add impact and value to their lives. And then it’s about putting that thinking into a plan of action and executing it. Because as some bright spark once said, ‘It ain’t innovation until it’s left the lab.’
A leap of faith
If you want the people around you to put their status, ego and self confidence on the line by zagging where others zig, you need to create a culture where people feel safe to shake up the status quo. Because people are going to make mistakes. People are going to fail. And people are going to get egg on their face. They won’t nail it first time round. And that reality has to be wholeheartedly accepted by the culture and the business, because being innovative is about breaking things in order to make them better, and experimenting with the nonsensical until something snaps brilliantly together.
So what can you do as a leader, as a manager, to empower people to take a leap of faith? How can you embed innovation into your company’s DNA? How can you show them the respect they need to empower them to try new things? How can you prove to them that’s it ok to fail - that you expect them to fail? And how can you protect them when they do?
These are the questions we’ll be addressing in this new series of blog posts.
Respect often feels like a meaningful and powerful word. We all want to be treated with respect, right? But what does it really mean to respect someone?
The word itself comes from the Latin word “respectus”, meaning attention or regard. It refers to the ability to value someone, even if we don’t agree with everything they say or do. It’s seeing them without judgement. And seeing people without judgement is what you need to do within your organisation to give people the confidence to think outside the box and push boundaries without fear of reproval.
So as a manager, as a leader, how do you respect innovation in your organisation? What can you do to demonstrate to your team that they have the freedom to experiment? That they have permission to fail in the pursuit of bigger, bolder solutions to business challenges and opportunities?
“People follow what you tolerate not what you preach.” Jocko Willink, Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win
How can you show in your behaviour that you respect innovation in your organisation?
A lot of the time it’s not what you need to start doing but what you need to STOP doing to prove that it’s ok to experiment, to have fun, and to fail in the pursuit of success. So stop complaining behind people’s backs when they don’t get it right. Stop talking about failure in a negative light - or not talking about it at all. And stop only praising perfection - give praise when people mess up too.
To get to the truly great ideas, people need to push through the crap first. But we aren’t always comfortable doing that. It’s up to you as a leader to flip this mindset on its head.
How can you create systems and structures that show you respect innovation?
Innovation doesn’t happen in one illuminating moment. Very few business-changing ideas are sudden breakthroughs - they take time to come to life. So stop expecting quick wins.
If you give someone a problem and expect them to solve it by lunchtime, you’ll get a floppy ham sandwich of a solution. But give someone time to think, research and test ideas, and you’ll end up with something far better. When you deny people the time they need to get creative and come up with those breakthrough ideas, you risk stifling them of their greatest potential.
How can you create an environment that shows you respect innovation?
Innovation is often about approaching an issue with a curious and open mind. But many modern office environments aren’t conducive to that kind of raw and wild creativity. If you say you respect creativity and thinking differently but your workspace looks like a bank, it tells the opposite story: that you respect the status quo.
At creative agency Wieden + Kennedy, the first sign that they respect bonkersness is a mannequin with a blender for a head carrying a suitcase that says, “Walk in stupid every day”. It signals to people that as an organisation, they respect creativity and bold thinking.
What signals does your work environment give to people?
Your moral inventory
Now you know what it means to show people you respect innovation, what do you see around you that could be blocking your team’s ability to innovate?
Are you punishing people for making mistakes and getting things wrong? Are you setting impossible deadlines for people to come up with great ideas AND put them into action? Are you trying to spur creativity in an office environment that is anything but?
It’s time to take extreme ownership of the innovation culture in your organisation. It’s time to identify the behaviours, the systems and the things in your work environment that are stopping people from taking a leap of faith. It’s time to show people you respect creativity and out of the box thinking, and that failure is a fundamental part of the process.
Next week, find out what it means to expect innovation in your organisation.
Matt Follows at Leading Left is on a mission to pressure proof brains, declutter minds and eliminate the bullshit that castrates creativity. Fusing 20 years experience in the creative industry with extensive training in psychology and psychotherapy, Matt created the REP Plan to help leaders empower people to think differently, embed innovation into their company’s DNA, and future-proof their business.