How to encourage innovation in the workplace

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Team innovation is the backbone of every successful company in New Zealand. It’s what sets a business apart from the competition, and helps it grow and prosper.

Getting your staff to think creatively isn’t always easy, though.

In a survey by Robert Half, 35 percent of chief financial officers said the greatest roadblock to organisational breakthroughs is a lack of innovative ideas. Executives polled also cited excessive bureaucracy (24 percent) and being bogged down with daily tasks or putting out fires (20 percent) as other major barriers.

Related: Signs of low employee morale in your team

Here are 10 ways to overcome those challenges and encourage innovation in the workplace.

1. Give employees a reason to care

The fact is, if people aren’t feeling connected to your company, there’s little incentive for them to be innovative.

Make sure you keep your team in the loop on your firm’s strategies and challenges, and invite their input.

Employees who are involved early on in processes and plans will be motivated to see them through to completion. Their active participation will fuel more ideas than if they learn of initiatives second-hand.

2. Empower your employees to make decisions and take action

People who are trusted to take safe risks and attempt new ways of doing things just may stumble across that next great business solution.

Be careful about being too critical when things go wrong, though, because employees will take note.

No one wants to be the centre of negative attention, and people will hold back on making suggestions if they’re worried about potential consequences.

Related: Preventing employee burnout when you have a skeleton staff

3. Don’t make staff jump through hoops

You may think that it’s easy for employees to offer their ideas, but is it really?

If managers are constantly behind closed doors and meetings tend to be one-way discussions, the message to staff is that their feedback isn’t welcome.

Make sure you and other leaders keep your office doors open as much as possible, let employees know directly that their ideas are always valued and keep formal discussions on a two-way street. Also use your intranet, brainstorming sessions or even an old-fashioned suggestion box to solicit input.

4. Do what you can to remove the red tape

Consider which internal processes might be stifling innovation.

For instance, it can be demoralising if recommendations must go through multiple layers of approvals in the organisation and take a significant time before they’re implemented, if at all.

Look for ways to streamline the process so people can see their good ideas in action quickly.

5. Rethink competition

Setting up contests for individuals at work can be useful for goals such as achieving sales targets.

However, be cautious about creating too competitive of a work environment when you’re trying to encourage innovation in the workplace. When employees are aiming for a reward, they may be reluctant to speak up for fear that their suggestions will be stolen. Instead, promote the value of collaboration.

For example, when launching a new project, you might pair employees to develop ideas for the best ways to tackle different aspects of the project. Encourage open communication and a team-first atmosphere.

6. Calm the naysayers

A key reason people often hesitate to offer fresh proposals is that they worry what others might say. No one wants to have their ideas shot down immediately or become fodder for jokes. Make sure you’re doing all you can to make it safe to brainstorm.

Even if someone makes an unrealistic suggestion, thank the person for thinking creatively. Also make sure that people can offer their recommendations in writing if they’re not comfortable speaking up. Stress to the entire team that you welcome input any way they prefer to share it with you.

7. Ease up

Employees who’ve been working sixty-hour weeks for months on end aren’t very likely to make notable contributions other than completing basic assignments.

When people feel overworked, their last priority is trying to be creative; they just want to get through what must be done at the moment.

Related: Why is employee engagement so important?

8. Make preventing burnout a high priority

Developing programs that promote work-life balance, such as offering telecommuting or paid time off for volunteer work, can help.

Redistribute workloads when necessary and consider bringing in temporary professionals during peak demands to keep everyone fresh and focused.

9. Set the example

Recognise that as a leader, you are the model for the entire team.

If you never think creatively with your own work, you can’t really expect your employees to do the opposite.

10. Do what you can to minimise your own stress so you can be at your best

It stands to reason that a relaxed, positive mood is more conducive to innovative thoughts than a tense one.

Whenever possible, don’t skip your lunch break, and take a head-clearing walk when you need to recharge.

Finally, take a serious look at the skill sets in your group. When was the last time you supported training and education for your employees? People need to be given the tools to think innovatively and that includes keeping their knowledge and expertise up-to-date.

Related: How to motivate your staff

With the right management approach and support, you can not only help your staff enhance their contributions but also make yours a better workplace.