Top tips: 5 ways to foster innovation in the workplace

1. Set aside time to think, and make personal goals

Finding the time or head-space to think creatively can be tough, but it’s a vital part of developing innovative businesses, ideas and campaigns. It’s critical to protect and cultivate it by setting aside time to do so.

Last year, Google actually put in formal rules requiring every employee to dedicate one day a week to side projects. This kind of focused, creative thinking builds a strong culture where ingenuity and change are embraced and valued. While one full day a week might not be possible for everyone, consider taking a few hours a week to get out of your usual environment to think of and about new ideas. Set yourself an unofficial goal to bring one or two new ideas, big or small, to each meeting.

2. Encourage conversation and collaboration

Despite spending years honing professional techniques, it’s not unusual for the best employees and departments to hit a mental block, or start churning out incremental variations of the same idea. This is precisely why it’s worth crowdsourcing creative ideas from outside of your immediate environment. The people you work with –  colleagues, clients and suppliers – are your most valuable resources.

You might have some wonderful innovators hidden away in your organisation that you’ve not tapped into, and the more people you have contributing, the more power you’ll have to generate and develop great ideas. Consultancy firms such as Accenture, PwC, and KPMG have built successful businesses on this premise. Novant Health used SpigitEngage’s innovation management platform to ask 3,000 of their 3m-strong nursing community what they felt could be done to improve patient care, rather than relying solely on their senior management.

3. Embrace failure and encourage risk

In a recent piece for Wired Insights, it was suggested that the quickest way to kill creativity is to institutionalise a corporate culture that punishes failure. It was noted that “it’s one thing to demand a high standard of output from employees – it’s quite another to say that, if their best efforts don’t work out, they risk being put on a performance improvement plan or worse. Yet this is so often what people say is the result of their attempts to risk something new in the name of innovation, and ultimately, business growth.”

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I stand by by this concept – working environments that welcome brave decisions and unusual thinking, whether it works first-time around or not, have been key to the success of so many of today’s household names. Mark Zuckerberg’s guiding philosophy, the “Hacker Way,” openly encourages Facebook employees to “make bold decisions, even if that means being wrong some of the time.” With the latest figures showing that global economic recovery is still anything but steady, and businesses are working even harder to innovate their way to success – now is surely the time to embrace failure and take calculated risks.

4. Start small, but aim high

The words “change” and “innovation” can strike fear in the hearts of those too comfortable in their working routine. For those who may be hesitant about diving into the deep end, starting with small innovations and ideas can be an excellent segue, as they’re much less daunting and easier to implement. Think of innovation as a spectrum: at one end, smaller, incremental changes can be introduced before moving up to the more disruptive and transformative innovations on the other end.

All levels of the spectrum have their own place and purpose. Let’s put this into context for a moment by thinking about your office’s email policy. CIOs everywhere are fighting a constant battle to keep data storage costs down, and many tackle it by attempting to reduce the size of employees’ email inboxes. A big change would be to ban internal emails and force people to use a social collaboration website instead.

A smaller shift would be to ask employees to only send email to people who need to see it, rather than sending mass emails to their entire teams. Introducing small changes like this can make a real difference, but also act as a stepping stone to build up to bigger, more transformational ideas. Likewise, once budget holders realise the benefits of incremental changes, they will likely be less resistant to larger ones.

5. Engage the rest of the business

The need to innovate and think creatively is a cross-departmental problem, but one that’s too often worked on by only a small group of people. Additionally, innovation efforts tend to be poorly communicated throughout the business. Whether your company already has a dedicated innovation team or is merely starting to consider the need for one, establishing a communications protocol around ideation, crowdsourcing, and implementation is a critical component of success. As mentioned earlier, it’s possible to start small if necessary – perhaps via a monthly meeting with representatives from each department to discuss and share best practices and new projects.

By embedding innovation, creative thinking, and collaboration into the core of your business, and adding it to you and your team’s daily work activities, you will ensure that you’re seen as being someone who adds value to your company – as well as making it much easier to complete tasks, execute projects successfully, and reach your own professional milestones and objectives.

James Gardner is CTO and SVP Product of Mindjet.

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