“We do innovation” or, “we are innovative”, and numerous other phrases are used time and time again by leaders to explain just how innovative their organizations are. However, sometimes upon further discussion, sadly, you come to find that in reality they may have an Innovation Lab, rooms filled with white boards, lots of sticky notes, and sleep pods, but do not really have the environment, people, processes, or infrastructure in place to enable ideas to thrive, be tried, vetted, and brought into fruition strategically – for the benefit of their customers, employees, or the business.

Bringing everything together to create new things that are a genuinely better way of doing something or fulfill a need (known or unknown) goes beyond funky furniture or that secret group working in a vacuum that comes back with their “big idea”. It goes beyond even the creation of something amazing – as without a strategic plan to operationalize it and bring it to market, it may very well miss it’s opportunity and potential.

We spend our time researching and understanding which ingredients and recipes enable businesses to achieve their goals across customer experience, employee engagement, and business performance. When we do this we look at 3 core components: the mindsets needed, the behaviors needed, and the environment needed. After several interesting discussions about innovation we looked back at all of our research and discussions into workplace experience and culture to find the attributes that played a critical role for the innovative organization. While there are many attributes that help foster innovation, we wanted to share some of the most common ones.

What people have access to and how their environment is set up

There are many environmental factors that will impact how well ideas can bubble up and come to fruition that span process, technology, and space. What people have access to within their environment and how their environment is made to work will impact just how much those ideas will materialize, as well as how easy it is for those ideas to manifest into a beneficial reality.

Technology and tools play a large role in connecting people and information in the best way. For example, do all employees have access to technology that allows them to collaborate as needed? This includes simple and easy to use tools that allow them to share ideas as they come up, iterate with the perspectives of others, get feedback, and pass the idea down the pipeline so that the right ones can become a reality. Do these tools allow them to do this with the right velocity? Do these tools enable them to access insights and information, both historical and real-time, so that the best decisions can be made along the journey?

The actual physical environment also plays a role, especially as the lines between digital and physical are becoming more blurry than ever. It is important to understand if the physical environment in which people work help cultivates the feeling and mental head space needed for them to feel inspired. Sadly, there is often a disconnect between an organization’s intent and the reality of their space design to support that intent. For example, having re-energizing spaces for people to take mental breaks, as ideas flow more easily when the mind is in a relaxed state. This is why so many people get their ideas when they step away for a minute or when they are in relaxed states, such as being in the shower. In combination with this, people need to feel that they have the time to explore their thoughts. In an increasingly overwhelming world where stress is on the rise, this can certainly be difficult. However, if your culture is one in which people do not fear how they will be perceived for taking a renewal break, one in which they understand how to apply the habit of renewal, and one in which you reward the right behaviors (rather than how much time they spend at their desk or in meetings), then it will become more of a natural habit.

The very processes and procedures within the working environment are also something that need to be optimized to foster a nature of experimentation. For example, having iterative work processes to bring the right ideas to fruition along with feedback cycles to apply a range of different insights. Or, how easy it is for people across your “functions” to come and work together should an idea require various skills that may be best found across the company. People that have ideas often have many good ones and many, many, bad ones. Having supporting processes that sift through and ensure the right ones are able become a reality given all the other factors involved is imperative.

The behaviors demonstrated by all levels of the organization

Organizations that are often described as “forward-thinking” or “innovative” tend to have people that demonstrate certain behaviors at all levels.

For one, their leadership inspires their employee population. This is different than motivating people directly. It is the ability to make people see the vision, feel energized to work towards it, and communicate in a way in which each and every person feels an individual and collective connection to the purpose of the company’s work. It is living their core values authentically. It is being respected. All of this is felt through the very behaviors leadership demonstrates. Why is this even important? Well, it makes people genuinely want to innovate for their company as they believe in what they are doing and the purpose of the organization. When you believe in something you naturally work more at it and are naturally driven to go above and beyond. When you are disengaged or do not believe in it, you can find yourself going through the motions, or not wanting to put in any extra effort – so even if you have a great idea, you have no motivation to do anything about it.

Behaviors that allow for openness and fairness to be felt are critical. For example, clearly appreciating diverse thoughts, bringing people into different conversations, not having negative repercussions for stating an opinion clearly with purpose, and not showing favoritism. Openness and fairness are incredibly important, it is this that will make employees feel safe to even share their ideas in the first place. If you don’t feel like your voice is heard or valued then you are likely to stay quiet. This can cause an organization to miss out on moments where people have ideas or something to contribute to a conversation. Leadership also have a large role to play in fostering an open and respectful environment, after all “an effective leader recognizes the importance of embracing differences in people and knows how to connect the dots amongst those differences to get the best outcomes from the team”. An authentic culture of openness and fairness also enables people to share their ideas without judgment. This creates an environment where people will not be so self-conscious about their ideas or worried if others will judge them, which affords the free-flow of ideation without the limits that judgment filled environments impose.

Another behavior is that of purposeful risk-taking. Of course, this is composed of several capabilities such as taking the time to explore opportunities, identifying the risk, cost, and impact to make the best decision quickly with the information you have, as well as having the ability to anticipate market forces. This enables the organization to identify and utilize opportunities in the best way possible.

The way people think and their beliefs

Mindset can be described as the set of attitudes someone has. These can be created from several things including your lifelong experiences, environment, and those around you. There are some mindset attributes that tend to align to greater levels of innovation.

A resilient mindset, one in which people can positively move past difficult moments, can help drive more innovation. Successfully creating something new is difficult – otherwise, everyone would have created something successful and novel. This is not because the idea is necessarily hard to come up with, it is because getting the right idea to fruition at the right time is difficult. People that shy away from the inevitable emotional and tactical difficulties are unlikely to be able to move past challenging moments. Often times, when you have tough moments, high constraints, or when something seems impossible, is when you get some of your greatest ideas – but you have to have the mindset to create at that moment, figure out how to get something done with what you have, and have the mental space for ideas to flow. This attitude of striving for excellence, when thought about as a way to go beyond seeing the normal and using restrictions as input to create innovative ways of doing something, is incredibly powerful for the innovative organization. Those that are passionate explorers, curious about how something could be better, smarter, or faster, pave the way for continuous innovation. Those that apply their knowledge and different learnings, no matter where or in what industry they learned them from, in a form of “cognitive convergence”, can see how to solve across multiple problem points using whatever knowledge they need to at the time.

We have all of the patterns and clues available, in our collective experience, our customer insights, data, and information, and yet we often tend to walk straight past them. Why is that? Well, there are many reasons, but there is something to be said for a more relaxed mental state. A state in which the levels of worry and stress are lower which allows for the mental capacity to ideate and explore. If you are running around from one thing to the next on your list, feeling de-energized, or having limiting beliefs, then you have very little time to explore beyond those tactical items and feelings that comes with them. Those that demonstrate more energizing behaviors tend to be more productive and happier, which has a positive impact to the level of innovation.

While mindset is something that is generally created from years and years of existence, it doesn’t mean that mindset cannot be transformed or grown. This may not be easy to do, but we have found that with dedicated effort it is possible and can yield great benefits. In fact, the benefits are even greater as many times when innovative mindsets and behaviors are role-modeled within an organization, it is positively contagious for others within the organization.

In Summary…

While this is a complex subject, fostering the right ecosystem for innovation to naturally happen – in your customer experience, in your employee experience, or in your business processes…can be done. A couple of things to consider as you try to create your innovation ecosystem:

  • Do your processes and procedures allow people to come together to discuss their perspectives and draw on the each other’s talents, wherever in the organization they may be, to test and bring ideas to fruition strategically?
  • Do your tools and systems in place enable people to collaborate as needed, when needed? Be that sharing ideas, broadening perspectives, accessing insights and data sets, or fostering connections between people that do not usually work together?
  • Do your spaces energize people? Do they enable people to feel inspired? Do they enable people to work in a way that is fit for purpose? Be that collaborating with others or having an individual focus?
  • Does your leadership inspire your employees? Is there purposeful risk-taking to enable you to identify and utilize opportunities in a beneficial way?
  • Do your employees have the mental space for ideation, exploration, and seeing the clues around them?
  • Is your culture one of openness, where different perspectives are respected and seen as valuable? Or do you just say it is, when in reality your employees feel differently?

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