Matt Follows, May 26 2020

What does it mean to expect innovation in your organisation?

In this second blog of three from innovation expert Matt Follows, we ask what it means to expect innovation in your organisation.

We’ve talked about what it means to respect innovation in your organisation. Of how we can stop the behaviours that prevent people from taking a leap of faith. Of how we can give people the space they need for new ideas to be born. And of how we can create environments that support raw creativity.

But respecting innovation is just one piece of the puzzle.

Great Expectations

The word “expect” comes from the latin “expectare”, meaning to await, to look for, desire or hope for. A person’s expectations are the strong beliefs they have about the way to behave or how things should happen.

Within organisations, we expect people to show up on time and to deliver on the work promised. We expect people to live and breathe our company values and treat both colleagues and customers with respect.

But we can’t just expect people to behave or work in particular ways without communicating those expectations.

And if you aren’t being explicit in your expectations around innovation and breakthrough thinking, then how can you expect people to take that leap of faith?

So as a manager, as a leader, how do you show your team that you expect innovation? 

What do you need to do to ensure they have the inspiration, guidance and permission to be more innovative in their day job?

How can you create a working environment that inspires innovative thinking?

Open plan offices are all the rage these days, and I can see some of the benefits in them, but the downside to having no walls is that people are constantly being knocked out of the zone by the hustle and bustle going on all around them. 

This kind of environment isn’t saying you expect people to be creative, it’s saying we expect you to put your headphones on and block out the outside world. Which is bonkers when you consider the fact that the vast majority of great ideas come from the distillation of great conversations.

Quiet areas or breakout zones within the workspace can give people an opportunity to step away from the buzz of the office to relax and recharge, which aids creative thinking.

And while you’re at it, think about treating your workspaces to artwork, books and magazines, and other stimuli for people to stumble across that will help them to think more broadly and more creatively. A workplace surrounded by blank white walls doesn’t exactly shout “Embrace innovation!”

What does your workplace look like? What message does it send to people?

What can you do behaviourally to guide people towards innovative thinking?

"Behaviour change starts from the top."

It’s hard to be inspired when you sit at your desk all day like a pregnant chicken. But honestly, do people in your organisation feel like they can get up out of their chair and have a wander? Do they feel trusted to not be heads down, typing away?

Imagine having schools without break times. Schools give children the space for their bodies to move their brains around. And that’s just as important in the workplace. Even if you’ve designed an attractive and inspiring environment, with different zones to stimulate different modes of thinking, you need to set the expectation that people can move around. That they can even pop out for a walk to get those creative juices flowing.

But this needs to start from the top. If people see managers working from different spaces around the office or getting out of the building for fresh inspiration, it shows them it’s ok to do the same. 

How managers talk about innovation also impacts how people feel about it. So talk openly about innovation, about embracing failure. And show people they’re trusted to do what they need to do in order to be innovative.

Your behaviour

“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 use your processes and structures to show people they have permission to be innovative?

To bake innovation into your company’s DNA, you need to empower people to challenge assumptions and think outside the square. You need to give them permission to ask questions, to shake up the status quo, and to come up with bigger and bolder solutions.

And you need to be explicit. So make it part of people’s job descriptions. Make it part of the review process, and encourage healthy competition between employees. 

In recent years, and especially right now, the world has changed beyond all recognition, and the answers to new, old and existing challenges aren’t always obvious. There’s no clear cut, right answer - and your people shouldn’t expect one. Instead, empower them to strive for novel, trailblazing and disruptive ideas of their own. And set these expectations from the moment they enter your business.

Are you setting these great expectations?

If you want to set the right expectations around innovation, you’ve got to address your environment, your behaviours, and your processes.

What do you see that’s blocking those expectations? Are you asking people to sit at the same desk everyday, surrounded by no stimulus to inspire them? Are you behaving in ways that jar with the expectations you have for your team? And are you still telling people what to do rather than urging them to think for themselves?

Now, more than ever, is the time to empower people to face-plant legacy thinking and push for those breakthrough ideas that could change your future.

Next week we’ll look at the final piece of the puzzle, and uncover what it means to protect innovation in your organisation. Because if you don’t protect the changes you’ve inspired, it’s game over.


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.

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