To set up your company for long-term success, it's critical to foster a culture of innovation. But when you are so focused on the numbers and just staying afloat, you may unwittingly block the ideas you need to not only survive but thrive as a business owner. While there is no magic formula to release your team's inner innovation machine, there are steps you can take to better align your company for creativity and new ideas. Here are five mistakes to avoid when working to identify opportunities for innovation.
Mistake No. 1: Ideas are dismissed before you fully explore them.
The way you communicate with your team makes a huge difference in creating a culture of innovation. Avoid shutting down ideas with phrases like: "That doesn't seem to make sense for us." Instead, use open-ended questions, such as: "How could we apply that here?" Then, disagree constructively.
If a solution doesn't fit a budget, don't dismiss it by just saying: "We don't have the budget." Open up new solutions by offering: "If money were an issue, how could you apply the same approach?"
By using the correct language, you can begin to foster an environment open to collaboration and innovation.
Mistake No. 2: Your team has no breathing room to experiment on the job.
Without free time, innovation is much more difficult. Actively allow your employees to set aside time to work on their pet projects and to learn new skills.
3M Company famously allows employees to set aside 15 percent of their time to work on projects that excite them. This led to the creation of 3M's Post-it Notes, now a multibillion-dollar product line.
We follow a similar policy at my robot-based letter-writing company. For example, my employees are constantly looking for replacement pens. Every time a robot notifies us it's out of ink, the workers walk to a stock area at the end of a row and pull a pen. One employee took their allotted free time and built a hanging penholder. Simple in design, this 3-D-printed cup with a hook now hangs from every rack of robots and saves at least a minute with every refill. This adds up to thousands of minutes saved each year.
Mistake No. 3: You focus on individuals instead of building teams.
People tend to know that team-building exercises ease the work environment and create a fun workplace. However, this same camaraderie also improves the flow of ideas. Sometimes it's as simple as having an after-work mixer to have people debate ideas over a few beers. Shrill, a new show on Hulu, refers to these types of mixers as "forced fun." No matter what you call it, if you plan one event like this a month you're bound to see the interoffice friendships grow.
At my company, we engage in forced fun by hosting mixers and volunteering events. About once a quarter, a team member plans an after-work activity, whether it be at a homeless shelter or another nonprofit. It's a powerful way to build camaraderie and help the community at the same time. The teamwork they build then spills over into the workplace. I have found when team members trust one another more, they are more willing to share their ideas and collaborate.
Mistake No. 4: You fail to remove barriers to communication.
Collaboration tools like Slack and Microsoft Teams are a great way to share ideas throughout the office--and even across multiple offices. Create a "channel" for new ideas, and another one for issues. What might be an issue in one office might already be solved in another.
As soon as people start sharing ideas, be sure to comment or even just react with a "thumbs-up" emoticon. These simple signals from you and your fellow leaders will motivate your team to share more.
Mistake No. 5: You're holding the reins on approvals too tightly.
If your business already has layers of approvals, you simply won't be as nimble as ones without the red tape. Either simplify your organizational structure or remove unnecessary approval processes. In my business, there is no more than one manager between me and any team member. This flattened structure allows everyone to feel empowered to share ideas.
There is no golden path to innovation. However, as a business owner you're in a unique position to create the culture of collaboration and openness that can allow innovation to thrive. Set an example through your language and participation in office activities, and be sure to laud the ideas as they arise. After all, the next breakthrough idea in your company could be as huge as the next Post-it note.