Apple shook up the entire music industry when it first introduced iPod and iTunes.

Starbucks brought with it a coffee shop business model completely unheard off before.

Nike is now offering mass customization allowing you to design your own shoes.

Everyone’s on a quest to do something new, disrupt the status quo. What are you going to do about it? Are you going to be a bystander and watch things change, or are you going to be the one to lead the change?

Today, there is hardly a field or industry without stiff competition, and keeping up with such competition requires innovation in every aspect of business.

In order to achieve this, you have to build a work culture that nurtures and brings out the creative thinking ability of employees. On that note, here are a few tips:

1. Encourage, in fact, insist on mentoring

I wouldn’t particularly encourage assigning mentors to every new joiner because picking the right mentor for themselves is a choice best left to the employees themselves.

But, actively encourage your employees to find mentors and encourage your senior employees to stay open to mentoring juniors. Mentors can help employees step out of their comfort zone, and they can lead and inspire by example.

Additionally, mentorship programs create a highly collaborative work environment, which in turn leads to the creation of innovative ideas through discussions and debates.

In fact, you can mix it up a little by adding reverse mentorship programs where the younger employees offer their insights and observations in say, new technology trends that can be implemented in a particular project. This style of collaboration can encourage the younger employees to keep up with the trends, learn more and think beyond the conventional ideas.

2. Crowdsourcing ideas frequently

Whenever there is a new project or a new venture, chances are, you will go back to the same experts and same teams to handle it. Instead, next time you have a new project, try crowdsourcing the ideas.

Keep a marketing campaign idea open to all the employees, not just the marketing guys and chances are, you will tap into the innovative thinking abilities of all the employees in your company.

71% of the companies expected the investment in open innovation projects to rise in 2015.

This also gives opportunities for the employees to try something new and discover other talents they can put to use. Giving them the chance to come up with an idea and also, to follow through with it is an effective way to drive innovation in the company.

I can personally attest to this one. At my startup, we have the practice of making an employee the ‘CEO’ of a project, when they come up with an innovative idea. We give them all the execution and planning rights, and everyone, including the founders, follows the employee.

It has proved to be very effective and I have seen my employees come up with many out-of-the-box ideas so far.

3. Encourage by listening

Say you are the manager of a team, one of the team members comes to you with a new idea that he wants to try and you, personally, find the idea silly. You talk down to him, telling him that the idea is far from reality, and he should have thought better. Do you think that employee will dare come back to you with a new idea? Possibly not.

If you want to encourage innovation, make your employees feel secure enough to think of crazy ideas and listen to them sincerely when they are offering an idea. If you think the feasibility of the idea is low, tell them so, very politely and with proper reasoning.

Remember that thinking crazy is sometimes the best way to come up with groundbreaking ideas and you can slowly train the employees to check the feasibility of an idea before they pitch it.

Keeping an open mind and listening with genuine interest, not humiliation and mockery, will encourage innovative thinking in the company.

4. Hire the right people

Like Herb Kelleher, the ex-CEO of southwest airlines puts it, “You don’t hire for skills, you hire for attitude. You can always teach skills.” – Herb Kelleher.

You can nurture innovation and creative thinking, but you can’t force it. When hiring an employee always look to see their attitude towards life and their career. Do they want to work just to earn some money and get from one day to another and from one promotion to another, or do they really want to make a difference and make mountains move?

It doesn’t matter if you give them a million opportunities to innovate if they don’t give a care in the world about the company or their career.

Even if you have to go through an arduous recruiting process, make sure to pick the right kind of employees because only then will you be able to nurture innovation and growth in the company.

5. Quit sedentary work-style

According to Tim Brown, CEO of the design and innovation company IDEO, a work culture that gives permission to play will see higher levels of creativity and innovation at work. It encourages them to take creative risks.

Play can mean a number of things here:

  • Playing an instrument for a while.
  • A game of ping pong.
  • Reading a book.
  • A game of chess.
  • Doing yoga in the office gym.
  • Office pranks even.

I, especially, suggest some form of exercise. Research has proved that exercise can actually boost your innovative/creative thinking abilities. Encourage your employees to take some time for a physical activity amidst their work hours to rejuvenate themselves.

Think from the employee’s perspective, waking up everyday and traveling to work just to sit in front of the computer and meet deadlines is quite energy sucking, and if anything, it impedes innovating thinking.

For good ideas and true innovation, you need human interaction, conflict, argument, debate. – Margaret Heffernan