Today’s leaders are often using the word “innovation” and how important it is to be part of their company’s strategy. But what can leaders really do to drive a culture of innovation and to motivate every employee to think outside the box?

"Think Outside the Box"Here are 3 steps to foster innovation in employee culture:

1. Communicate
As with most things, it all starts with communicating. You need to let employees know innovation is an integral part of your agenda. Innovation cannot be the topic of the month or sit in pockets of the organization or be the job of a few. It needs to be part of the fabric, of the DNA of an organization and it needs to live in every employee if you want your company to strive on innovation.

Innovation also requires a culture of experimenting and risk taking where failure is not only accepted but encouraged as part of an ongoing learning and improvement process. Leaders should say this loud and often: no innovation is possible without people taking risks and making a bet. This is very similar to going “all in” in the game of poker. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. If you lose there is always something to learn. So don’t be afraid of making mistakes. We don’t want people who never fail because they never try something new.

2. Engage
Everyone likes to be engaged, motivated and incented. Create a platform for innovation that brings people and ideas together. For example, create an innovation intranet where people can meet and exchange ideas, post innovation concepts, get inspired by other people’s creativity and thinking. Personally engage on this platform and continuously demonstrate that you are interested in people’s ideas and that you recognize creativity and that innovation can come from anywhere and anyone. Run contests on the best ideas, the boldest thinking, and new approaches to solving problems.

Challenge people to constantly challenge themselves. Demonstrate that you do the same and are open to suggestions for change and improvement. Russ McCammon has some great tips on fostering creativity with employees by encouraging them not to think outside of the box, but to remove it from the equation completely!

3. Recognize
Closely linked to engagement and communication; recognition is a huge motivator. Acknowledgment of someone else’s thinking, ideas and work is a key factor of an employee’s success. Recognition is at the heart of social media and success stories like Wikipedia. Recognize and celebrate people’s contribution to your innovation agenda and give them a platform to shine. But don’t just recognize the biggest successes which will get their fair share of voice through viral channels and word of mouth inside the company maybe even faster than through the formal process.

Celebrate the risk takers, the bold thinkers and the great ideas that didn’t pass the acid test but that stretched the imagination. Failures have a way of providing phenomenal learning opportunities and lead to the next big idea and the people behind them. Recognizing the effort is as important as celebrating success and will foster a culture where risk taking is accepted, practiced and where everyone is thinking outside the box.

Most importantly: as a leader ask yourself every day where you can innovate and change something in your routine that no longer has the justification to exist in its current form.

Author: Marcus Starke is the National Vice President of North America Marketing at SAP. He has worked in many countries across the globe with background in software, CPG, management consulting and agency network management.

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