Innovation activity in American companies decreased over the past year, based on a recent workplace study from Microsoft and BCG. Businesses typically make fewer risky investments during turbulent times, but the challenges of creating and collaborating remotely also contributed to the recent dip in innovation. With many companies bringing teams back to the office in the fall, prioritizing innovation now is key to activating post-crisis growth.
As a CEO and author of a few leadership books, I’ve helped people at global organizations shift their cultures and mindsets toward innovation. And because employees take their cues from their leaders, I’ve guided executives toward translating their goals into productive behaviors. Below are five leadership habits designed to publicly elevate innovation as a priority in your organization.
1. Embed with R&D for one day each quarter. Do you understand how the innovation pipeline operates in your company? The former CEO of P&G, A.J. Lafley, was known for joining R&D meetings and for introducing employees to design thinking, which is now a core principle for P&G. Even in a remote era, the technology exists for you to take part in a day in the R&D life of your company. Establish this routine now and maintain it when work shifts back to hybrid or in-person.
2. Ask me anything. To encourage open dialogue and give employees a direct line to the CEO, host a virtual Q&A happy hour once a month. Set up a channel for submitting anonymous questions and review them in advance so your talking points — especially around delicate subjects—are top of mind. By normalizing a corporate culture of asking questions, you’re empowering everyone in the org to challenge conventions, which fosters a mindset of innovation.
3. Commit to the rule of threes. To keep innovation on your employees’ minds, continual messaging from leadership around the topic is essential. As in, why is innovation valuable to your company? How do you define innovation? What brand or figure serves as your innovation hero? Identify three talking points to mention in your communications across the entire org and try to drop these into the conversation at least once a day.
4. Make it personal. Did a team or employee recently innovate an existing service, take a smart risk or offer a wildly creative idea in brainstorm? Innovative actions or ideas deserve recognition, so call or email them with a personal commendation for their contribution. This kind of personal, positive re-enforcement helps nurture innovation instincts in employees while affirming innovation as a top priority for you.
5. Throw Dare to Try parties. When plastics company W. L. Gore & Associates kills a failed project, it hosts a celebration with beer and champagne, just like they’d do if the project had succeeded. In your own business, get in the habit of celebrating risk-taking that comes with a learning lesson, collaboration milestone, or another silver lining. Because many I.R.L. events are still paused, send a bottle of champagne to each member of the risk-taking team, and give other invitees a $25 credit to order their drink or treat of choice from home. During the virtual party, shift the conversation with the guests of honor between silly (“what’s your favorite Adult Swim show?”) and serious (“if time travel was possible, what’s one change you’d make to this project?”). Even when risks end in failures, they often provide the seed for future innovations. Celebrating them is a healthy way to remove the stigma attached to failing.
There are plenty of reasons why innovation efforts lose momentum—especially amid the dumpster fire of 2020—but leadership often plays a role. As leaders, we must seek ways to encourage innovation and nurture creativity—not stifle them. While it’s tough to replicate the organic office encounters that spur creativity and collaboration, spend this summer sowing the seeds of innovation so you can bring them to life in the fall.