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How leaders can create a culture of innovation 5 min read
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Innovation drives us forward. From DNA sequencing to electric cars to the smartphone in your hand, we’ve seen a dizzying array of innovations over the past few decades. As author Victor Hugo wrote back in 1877, “There is only one thing stronger than all the armies of the world, and that is an idea whose time has come.” The right thought at the right moment can change everything. But what is innovation, really? According to Collins English dictionary, it’s “the introduction of new ideas, methods, or things.” Sounds simple enough. Yet, in business, it’s not easy to build an innovative company — a place where creativity rules and people embrace new possibilities.

Two prerequisites for innovation

Organizations that consistently land on the “world’s most innovative companies” lists have two things in common:

An awesome product or service

You need to start with something that people would line up for. It sounds obvious, but many companies forget the “awesome” part. It’s not enough to make something that works. And even if you have a great product, you have to keep pushing the boundaries. Ambitious companies also attract ambitious employees. Smart, talented people want to make an impact. Take Toronto restaurant Ruby Watchco, for example. Chefs Lynn Crawford and Lora Kirk serve a new menu every night. That’s right. No two visits here are ever the same. Crawford is a food celebrity who often appears on TV shows like TopChef and Chopped. She and Kirk could repeat the same dishes for months and still fill seats. But they keep stretching themselves. They continue to innovate.

An appetite for change

A company that doesn’t evolve will eventually kill its product. Think of brands like Kodak and Xerox, which missed the boat on emerging technologies. At my company, JotForm, we never switch lanes, but we’re always trying to improve our product. We constantly want to make it smarter, more beautiful, and easier to use.

Nurturing a Culture of Innovation

Innovation doesn’t guarantee a smash hit every time. Building momentum is what matters. And as a leader, you need to encourage risk-taking. Here’s how to nurture a culture of innovation, whether you’re just starting out or leading a large, well-established team.

Create long-term strategies

It’s tough to reach a new destination when you don’t have a map. Creating a big-picture strategy — and sharing it with your employees — will guide decision-making. It can also help everyone to understand (and stick to) their top priorities. Every January, I set a new focus area for the year. It could be something like “mobile” or “data” or “productivity.” We still do the day-to-day work, like answering customer support questions and fixing bugs, but we channel our creative energy into this year-long challenge. The strategy informs the new features we develop and how we think about the product. Nurturing Innovation

Assign flexible projects

Once you have your strategy in place, it’s time to dig in and explore. Asking open-ended questions, like “How can we create a better mobile product?” gives everyone room for innovation. As your team tackles the question, they can use data collection methods such as research, interviews, customer feedback, and experimentation to see what comes up. Looking at other markets and industries can also get the creative juices flowing. Studies led by Vanderbilt University researcher David H. Zald show that trying new things triggers the brain to release dopamine, a chemical that boosts motivation and innovation. The more we can change up tasks, projects, and even perspectives, the more we’re primed to create.

Don’t set unnecessary deadlines

The software industry is well known for its grimly named “death marches.” These happen when leaders set arbitrary and often wildly ambitious deadlines. Everyone knows the time frame is nearly impossible, but they feel pressure to agree. Teams work 80-hour weeks to reach this random target, forgoing sleep, exercise, and time with family and friends. And when it’s over, everyone breathes a sigh of relief — until the next death march. There’s no need for all this stress and anxiety. Some leaders worry that if they don’t set a release date, nothing will happen, but that’s rarely the case. Without employing aggressive time management strategies, you can still have check-ins to gauge progress and keep everyone on track while tackling open-ended projects. At JotForm, we have Demo Days every Friday. Our teams show what they’re working on and get feedback from the group. These show-and-tell sessions get everyone excited to continue. And we only set launch dates when a new product version is totally ready. Then we can plan backward to ensure a sane lead-up.

Inspire people to be their authentic selves

When Colleen Barret was the executive vice-president of Southwest Airlines, she encouraged flight attendants to deliver the legally required safety instructions in their own style. As a result, staff often infused a routine moment with humor and personality, to their passengers’ delight. Barrett’s approach also helped Southwest become a top performer in profitability, passenger volume, customer satisfaction, and turnover. When people are free to express themselves, they’re more likely to innovate. They can bring their whole selves to work. Authenticity is contagious, and it can spread the spirit of creativity throughout your team.

A final word

Innovation begins with a solid foundation of quality and the ability to navigate change. Once those are in place, you’re able to dream even bigger. Imagine what’s possible for your company and your team. Ask open-ended questions, give people freedom to experiment, and don’t set haphazard deadlines in the name of productivity. Innovation needs space to breathe. It can’t always be rushed, but it can definitely be nurtured.

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