Three Ways to Grow a Culture of Innovation at Work

When I was 10 years old, all I wanted was a skateboard. Because my parents refused to buy me one, I did what any resourceful 10 year-old would do – I asked my grandparents for one.

My Grandpop was a frugal guy – there was no way he’d run out to buy me one…what he did offer to do was build me one.

It wasn’t fancy. It was essentially a piece of plywood with some wheels screwed into the bottom but, after a few modifications, it worked and I learned to ride.

Growing up, there were always magic solutions that came from my grandfather’s workshop in the basement. He could fix anything and build anything.

When I think about innovation, I think about him – always ready with a creative idea or solution, not afraid to make a mistake, and never giving up.

 Innovation is NOT…

…a ping pong table in the office.

…a nap room.

…a special program launched by the HR team.

Innovation is a culture. A culture of risk takers, idea generators, and simplifiers. People who don’t give up, and who speak up…. in an environment built on trust.

Cultures aren’t born, they’re made. And with anything we make, it takes time and focus.

Here are three small ways that you can grow a culture of innovation – and you don’t have to be the CEO to do so.

1. Find Your Leaders.

Culture starts with leadership and leaders set the tone. They tell us the vision and priorities, they tell us what’s important and what to focus on. They also make or break whether or not the work environment is open and built on trust through their transparency and authenticity. This is so important if we want innovation to grow.

On my first day at SAP over 11 years ago I had the privilege of seeing our (at that time) CEO of SAP America, Bill McDermott, making his rounds in the office. He’d stop at each floor and a crowd of employees would gather to hear Bill’s thoughts and to ask questions.  Bill was inspiring – not only setting a vision, but also calling people out by name and being authentic. What he said to me and other employees, through actions not words, was that he was open and eager for us to have an impact…laying the groundwork for innovation.

What you can do –

Not every organization has a leader as dynamic as Bill.

Find those great leaders – the ones who listen, who champion ideas, and inspire their teams. They will likely be a few layers down from the top. Give them a platform to reach other employees outside of their teams. Have a Q&A session with them.  It will go a long way in building trust in your culture.

2. Speak Up!

The most innovative companies know that the best ideas start with a diverse team…bringing together people from many backgrounds, with different experiences to make amazing things happen.

But the magic really happens when those diverse teams feel empowered– to be themselves, to speak up, to share ideas.

Culture of innovation can’t just be top-down.  While our leaders set the tone – it’s the people who bring a culture to life within an organization.

What you can do –

Have you ever been in a meeting with someone who sits quietly and doesn’t say much? Call them out and gently ask for their view. Sometimes the best ideas and thoughts are hidden inside people who might not be as comfortable sharing. And don’t be afraid to share your own ideas.

Get feedback from people who are different that you. If you only talk to people who are just like you, your solutions are only as good as your strongest idea.

3. Be Fearless.

If we want innovation, we must take risks. If we take risks, there will be failures. We’ve got to remove fear that exists about failure and make failure seen as a lesson and a gift.

Not only must employees be willing to be themselves and share their ideas, they have to be comfortable taking risks and (at times) failing.

What you can do –

Recognize and role model the behaviors you want to encourage in your organization. Have your leaders share a story about a personal failure and what they learned. On a team call, recognize someone who took a risk that might not have worked out as planned.

Get back up if you fail. Force yourself to see the learning instead of the result.

One more thing…

Don’t let your years of work experience or your last project define your value and worth. Everyone has something to share and something to learn so be bold and be yourself.

And just maybe – you will inspire someone with your innovation, just like my grandfather did for me.

This blog is based on a speech for the Villanova University Graduate Human Resources Development Program.

Originally posted on Lead with Intuition.

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Liz Brenner

Liz Brenner is currently Vice President of Marketing Employee Engagement at SAP. Liz has spent over 8 years in various marketing and operations roles at SAP. Prior to SAP, Liz spent over 10 years in consulting and operations roles at BearingPoint, Arthur Andersen, and in the energy industry. Liz’s blog, Lead With Intuition, is a compilation of inspiring lessons from top business leaders to empower you in your pursuit of success. Follow @LizBrenner on Twitter.

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