Businesses must innovate.

Companies that don’t innovate don’t grow. Innovation has always been an important tool. It is how established companies build markets or enter new ones. It is how entrepreneurs sneak up on bigger companies with brand new offerings (like the disruption Dollar Shave Club brought to the men’s razor market or Uber brought to transportation). In a world where the cost and barriers to enter markets is shrinking the next new thing is always just around the corner, making the ability to innovate even more important.

What is the key factor that determines whether your company will innovate? Your employees.

The good news is that you can create a culture where people innovate. George Barbee recently released 63 Innovation Nuggets. In Barbee’s 45 year business career, he was responsible for innovation with multiple Fortune 100 companies: General Electric, PepsiCo, IBM and PriceWaterhouseCoopers. He knows how to build teams that innovate and thrive.

This white paper lays out twelve of those nuggets. I’m not going to go into all of them here, but I do want to discuss the ones that stuck out most to me.

Barbee begins by explaining that most of us are far more innovative than we think. The problem is we tend to associate “innovate” with “invent.” And while an invention is one way to innovate, there are many other ways. The simplest way to innovate is to pay attention, observe what’s around you and then transfer what you observed to another category where it can be applied.

When looked at in this way, anyone can innovate. More important, innovation can be taught.

You teach innovative thinking by helping people observe what they already know, then apply what they know in creative new ways.

What can leaders do to help people innovate? The foundation to all of this is making time to observe and creating a safe space for people to look for connections. Part of this deals with structure and the other part with culture. This is one of Barbee’s main points. Prioritize innovation. And encourage your team to do the same.

But here is the problem. In most organizations we don’t encourage people to experiment or think creatively. Plus we are always focused on what has to get done right now. What can be put off? If you don’t make time to get above the forest just a little you will always be focused on the tree in front of you, which means you and your team will never stumble upon hot new ideas and your organization will suffer.

Perhaps the easiest place for leaders to start is in how we deal with “absurd” ideas. Barbee recommends teaching your team (and yourself) to “respect absurd ideas.” From Barbee:

“If we hear an absurd idea, we often have one of two reactions: first, it’s a stupid idea so we dismiss it and go onto another idea or topic, or second, it’s so far out there that it frees up other thinking and ideation. It is now less risky to bring out other unusual ideas.”

This is a critical leader behavior. If you react to any suggestion as being stupid you create a power gap and shut down future suggestions. On the other hand, if you make your team feel like all ideas are welcome (even the ones that seem “out there” at first glance) you encourage new and unusual ideas. Instead of belittling or ignoring ideas give your team “greater confidence in their own thinking and ideas.”

Want one simple way you can start encouraging innovation today?

Ask people a version of our second question of approachable leaders: What would make this better? Then encourage whatever your teammate says. If you either think their suggestion is “out there” or you just don’t understand where they’re coming from, ask questions. Look for connections between that idea and other areas. Have a conversation.

This is key to innovative thinking. And it’s not bad approachability advice. Here are two other nuggets Barbee recommends to improve innovation that also relate to approachability. In fact, approachable leaders do these two automatically.

  1. Encourage Access Up and Down the Organization. First of all, it makes no sense to exclude anyone from your team from innovative thinking. Whether you lead 8 people or 800 people, you want your company to grow and thrive. Two heads are better than one (and 800 are better than two!) The problem most companies face is that when they grow it increases complexity and can decrease communication. This paradox kills companies (read our article on it here). If there is a disconnect between leaders who makes the decisions and the folks doing the work you are going to have a problem. You must encourage ideas from all levels of the organization (especially the front-line where people are closest to the work and the customer but most likely to feel distance from leaders). Want to innovate? Encourage conversation and connection.
  2. Innovate Through Integration. This idea ties into the last one. Bring your whole team together. Unfortunately, this is where a lot of organizations struggle – HR doesn’t really work with sales and sales avoids engineering. People end up in a silo just telling themselves stories about what is happening in their silo of the company. The tragedy is that any one of these stories is an opportunity to spark an innovation. When your team isn’t together you lose these opportunities. So be more approachable. Encourage other leaders to be more approachable. This will change the culture and encourage more conversations and connections.

Research actually shows that people who rate their manager approachable are 88% more likely to make a suggestion or volunteer to pitch in outside their normal job. Behaviors like this improve cooperation, drive innovation and deliver better business results. (Learn more about the research behind approachability in our white paper.)

Can you think of any examples of innovations that happened in your company? Was there a connection or conversation that sparked the innovation? Raise your hand (virtually) if your team could be more innovative. Do you see the connection between creating a more supportive environment and innovative thinking? How do you think approachability fits into it?