In life, innovation is the name of the game. And luckily for us humans, we’re hardwired to break and build again and again (and again). Our innate desire to create, experiment, and innovate is how we’ve pioneered technological breakthroughs that have changed the course of human history.
In the world of entrepreneurship, continuous innovation is how business leaders carve out unique niches, cater to the markets of the future, and gain a serious competitive edge. And as it turns out, crises are our greatest source of innovation inspiration. The COVID-19 pandemic, for example, has thrown many of our modern problems into sharp relief—which might explain why 73% of respondents to a KPMG survey believe COVID-19 has honed their focus on innovation, or why 60% of the top research and development spenders worldwide funneled more money into R&D in 2020.
Innovation really is do or die in business, but that doesn’t mean innovation efforts always go according to plan. Disengaged employees who aren’t connected to your mission can quickly clog up the flow of innovative thinking across your team. Even if employees are genuinely excited and inspired, myriad factors—such as unrealistic deadlines and competing strategic priorities—can quickly derail progress. And if your C-suite has a low tolerance for risk, you’ll find it difficult to justify the time and resources you need for creativity and experimentation.
Follow these three steps to empower your employees and manifest innovations that drive your business forward:
1. Set a clear vision.
More often than not, when an innovation program fails to bear fruit, it’s because there’s little to no alignment between a company’s innovation goals and strategic business goals. If this problem sounds familiar, you’re not alone. More than half of business executives surveyed by PwC said they struggle to link their innovation and business strategies. And almost two-thirds of companies that said they dedicate 15% or more of their revenue to innovation identified this lack of alignment as their top management challenge.
With this, stop acting on unconnected spurts of innovation. Your first step in any innovation project should be to outline what you hope to achieve or discover and exactly how it complements your overarching objectives and mission. Consider whether you’re exploring a solution for the wrong reasons; no one is immune to the power of “shiny object syndrome,” especially when emergent technologies hold tempting promises of market dominance. For example, exploring the potential use case of 3D printing in your business might be exciting, but if it has little to do with your strategic vision, then you’ll end up wasting time and resources.
Additionally, innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum, so you need to ensure your on-the-ground employees are in the loop. Even if the business strategy is clear, you need to be sure that you’re communicating the innovation strategy and connecting the dots for employees. How exactly do the goals, outcomes, and expectations of this particular project relate to their jobs? If you can’t paint a clear picture of how innovation fits into the bigger context, then generating the results you desire will become a near-impossible task.
2. Arm your team with the resources they need.
No matter how much Isaac Newton would like you to believe, you won’t discover your next big breakthrough under an apple tree. That’s because innovation is not a product of epiphany or serendipity. Real innovation happens when you find and leverage the correct data about your company, your customers, and your industry. However, before you can activate your data’s superpowers, you need to arm your team with the resources it needs.
Matthew Rocklin, CEO of Coiled, recommends using a DataOps platform to empower your team to innovate through data. “Most analysts don’t know where the data is,” says Rocklin. “Or if they do, it’s in such a raw and messy form that it’s unusable. DataOps platforms help to serve clean, analysis-ready data to the people who need it most without asking them to become data engineers themselves.”
Additionally, these platforms help you and your team understand how your data is being used (so you can ensure that it’s used correctly). “Once a team is aware of a dataset, accessing that data can become cumbersome or dangerous without a DataOps platform, as informal copies of sensitive data filter throughout an organization,” says Rocklin. Therefore, DataOps platforms enable more streamlined and secure data-sharing that can help your company innovate more effectively.
3. Provide psychological safety.
All the fancy data analysis tools in the world won’t save your innovation efforts if your employees are too scared to express themselves and explore new ideas due to fear of reprisal. Does failure usually lead to budget cuts or job losses at your company? Are people hesitant to speak out at companywide meetings? If this is the case, it’s no wonder that people don’t want to experiment.
To truly drive innovation, you need to foster a sense of psychological safety that gives your employees room to grow. Yujin Lee, executive creative director at B-Reel, ensures that this starts at the top at her organization. “It’s apparent that the authenticity of our executives has a trickle-down effect that creates a relaxed and psychologically safe environment for people to speak their minds, work autonomously, and be themselves,” she writes. Create psychological safety in your company by revealing your own vulnerability. Be open about your failed experiments, what you learned from them, and how you plan to do better in the future. Publicly recognize others who took bold risks, learned some hard lessons, and grew from the experience.
Then, add some structure. It’s not practical to allow your employees to throw things at the wall and see what sticks in their day-to-day duties. Instead, create controlled environments (like Google does) where employees can dedicate time and resources to exploration and experimentation without any expectations.
Throughout human history, we’ve achieved magnificent technological, ecological, and social progress through the practice of continuous innovation. Any business leader worth their salt understands what innovation is and why it’s essential—and when they arm their teams with a strategic vision, the right tools, and the psychological safety they need, there’s no telling what kind of innovation they’ll achieve next.