Illustration by Tammy Gu

How To Inspire Innovation In Those You Lead

Being innovative is a valuable skill, a personal asset worth quite a bit these days.

Anyone who is innovative — that is, anyone capable of solving complex (or simple) problems in ways that are fresh and, ideally, cost-effective — will be especially valuable to whomever they work for.

After all, in today’s economically-robust world, an employee’s value is generally congruent with the kinds of problems they’re solving. Are you a neurosurgeon? If so, you’re likely very valued (and feeling it in your compensation) because of the enormity of the problem(s) you’re solving.

So, there’s a widespread tendency to value employees — to value people, really — to the degree that they’re innovative, and thereby to the degree that they’re solving problems.

This makes perfect sense and we’re totally about it. Innovative people are valuable. No surprises here.

Do you know who is more valuable than the person who is innovative?

The person who knows how to inspire innovation in others. Yes, this is the person you should want on your team more than anyone.

Why is the person who can inspire and promote innovation in others more valuable than someone who is simply innovative themselves?

Well, we think it’s fairly obvious: they’re in the business of replication and development; they’re in the business of making sure organizations (and our world more broadly) are not dependent on one person.

They‘re about the diversification of resources.

Those who can work themselves out of job by developing others to take their position are always the most coveted in organizations.

Question, then: how do we become the kinds of people capable of inspiring and promoting innovation in others? We’ve got three ideas for you.

1. You’re A Champion

Some people certainly have natural proclivities towards problem-solving. It’s as though they enter the world with a knack for fixing what’s broken, for seeing the way forward.

And then there’s the rest of the population. Presumably, the rest of the population here makes up the vast majority of our world and economy.

So, what shall we do? Just leave the innovating to the van Gogh’s and Beethoven’s of the world? To those evidently “born” innovative?

We think doing this would be a deep shame. The reason is because there are so many innovative minds out there that have yet to be unleashed. There’s so much untapped innovative potential in the world. And it may just be a matter of confidence for many of us.

This is why the first step toward inspiring innovation in others is to be a champion.

What’s a Champion?

In short, if someone is your champion, they’re your greatest cheerleader. They’re there on the sidelines motivating you, encouraging you, and pushing you forward.

People who inspire innovation in others are shoulder-to-shoulder (virtually or not) with those they’re developing. They offer presence and insight.

But above all, they help those they’re developing to access what their developee is best at. They help those they’re developing and inspiring to get in touch with what drives them and makes them most passionate.

If you’re someone who inspires innovation in others, you’re a champion.

2. You Resource Your Team

Who comes to your mind when thinking about the best people at inspiring innovation?

Who are the people who, when you listen to them speak, you find yourself getting genuinely energized to go accomplish?

Take Steve Jobs, for example; he’ll help to make this point nicely.

Steve Jobs, while probably not the world’s greatest public speaker or best champion, did something else that was instrumental not just to his success, but instrumental to the success of so many of his colleagues.

He resourced his team.

Innovating is often as difficult as it is because it’s an inherently risky venture; when you’re engaged in authentic innovation, you’re generally in unexplored lands. There’s risk there.

Because of this, innovating is a trial-and-error kind of process. Let’s try, let’s fail; let’s try, let’s fail. All of this only so that we might find success.

What does this require if nothing else? Resources and someone to provide them.

The person resourcing their team to inspire innovation is taking the biggest risk of all.

Why is this? Well, because if the project fails, the one resourcing will be the one eating all the costs. If you’ve got a team mate who reports to you and says they’ve an idea to try out and it fails, worst case scenario is loss of their job.

As the leader investing resources, you could lose your company or organization. You could lose trust with your leader for investing in what turned out to be a “return-less” project.

People who inspire innovation resource their team. In this way, they tend to be the biggest risk takers in the organization.

If not for them, organizations wouldn’t grow or succeed.

3. You’re A Truth-Teller

This last point is what makes those with the power to inspire innovation really stand out; this is what sets them apart from the non-inspirational.

If you’ve the power to inspire and promote innovation, then you’re a truth-teller.

You always opt for honesty.

No one is guessing your perspective on a given project; instead, you always offer it freely.

You clearly say what needs to be said.

But you’re not just any kind of truth-teller.

After all, inspiring and promoting innovation in other people is delicate business. The slightest bit of rudeness or disrespect in your truth-telling communication can undo all that has been developed.

Remember, self-confidence remains central to innovation development.

Also remember, we’re ignoring the natural-born innovators who have the magical capacity to ignore, as it were, the harsh, mean-spirited feedback people often give.

As we’re thinking about inspiring and promoting innovation in the majority of our population, then, this point about truth-telling is crucial.

Why does so much hang on truth-telling?

Truth acquaints us with reality.

Until we’re acquainted with reality, our innovation may be for nothing, totally wrong-headed, or fixed in the complete wrong direction. People capable of inspiring and promoting innovation will never hide the truth about an innovation-centered project from the one working on it.

In delivering the truth, they will also not compromise the relationship; the spirit to innovate will be left in tact and only stronger as a result of the truth-telling.

Are you a manager, director, or superior to folks who are either engaged in innovation or who you want to be engaged in innovation?

Practice being a champion. Encourage success and talent when you see it.
Practice resourcing. Ask what your team needs.
Practice truth-telling. Say what needs to be said.



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