Encourage Innovation by Following 4 Simple Truths

March 28, 2024 Randy Conley

Innovate—or die.

Pardon my bluntness, but that’s the reality faced by organizations today. The world is changing at such a rapid pace, organizations need to either constantly innovate and adapt to changing markets or face the almost certain fate of going out of business.

As dark and gloomy as that may sound, it’s nothing to fear. Actually, it’s one of the most exciting times in history to be a leader! Each day presents a new challenge for us to conquer and an opportunity to learn and grow in ways we’ve never considered. And that’s what innovation is—coming up with ideas that solve problems in new ways that create value.

Innovation isn’t the responsibility of a single department like research and development—it’s everyone’s responsibility to innovate. Although it’s possible for innovation to happen by chance, the most successful leaders and organizations develop a culture that intentionally encourages innovation.

The simplest definition of culture is “the way we do things around here.” Leaders are culture creators because they set the example for others to follow. It falls to the leader to create a culture where innovation can flourish, whether it’s at the individual, team, or organizational level.

Innovation cannot happen without trust. Trust is the fertile soil that allows innovation to take root and grow. When trust is present, innovation thrives. When it’s absent, innovation withers.

So the question becomes how can leaders create a culture of trust that inspires innovation? The answer is to keep it simple by following a few commonsense principles.

My book Simple Truths of Leadership: 52 Ways to Be a Servant Leader and Build Trust, coauthored with Ken Blanchard, offers guidance on how you can turn commonsense principles into common practice.

Consider how these four simple truths can help you build trust and set the conditions for innovation to bloom:

Simple Truth #30—Someone must make the first move to extend trust. Leaders go first. Trust cannot grow until one person extends it to another. That means being vulnerable and taking a risk, with the positive belief the other person will prove themselves trustworthy. People will not innovate until they know you trust them to take the risks necessary to experiment and try something new. Let people know you trust them through your words and actions, and they’ll be much more likely to bring their most creative thinking to the table.

Simple Truth #33—Fear is the enemy of trust. Fear is also the enemy of innovation. Leaders who are intentional about building a culture of trust and innovation pay particular attention to developing psychological safety within their teams. Psychological safety is when an individual feels they can take a risk by speaking up, sharing ideas, or trying something new without fear of being put down or reprimanded. For trust and innovation to thrive, it’s imperative to banish fear from your workplace.

Simple Truth #42—True servant leaders admit their mistakes. This truth may strike you as having nothing to do with innovation, so let me share a story that illustrates what I’m talking about. When Garry Ridge, the former CEO and now Chairman Emeritus of WD-40, started working with the company in the late 1980s, the organization had a siloed, risk-averse culture. Innovation was stifled because mistakes were viewed as fatal failures, so people would cover up their missteps. Garry set about shifting the culture from seeing mistakes as failures to seeing them as “learning moments.” Because of Garry’s own example of admitting mistakes and treating them as opportunities to learn and grow, the culture followed suit. That’s the power of leaders who admit their mistakes!

Simple Truth #45—The opposite of trust is not distrust—it’s control. Many leaders like to keep a tight grip on the reins of their team’s activities because they’re afraid of giving up control. They fear that if their people have too much leeway, they might do something that makes the leader look bad. Innovation can’t happen in that type of environment. People need a measure of freedom, autonomy, and trust to take appropriate risks if they’re going to innovate. If leaders are honest with themselves, they’ll admit that they really don’t have as much control as they think they do. The only control we truly have is over ourselves: our actions, attitudes, values, emotions, and opinions. If you want to spur innovation in your team or organization, you must get comfortable with giving up control.

In a recent webinar on innovation and change, my colleagues shared the findings of our Innovation Beliefs, Practices, and Realities Survey (full results can be found in this new eBook). We queried more than 600 executives, managers, and individual contributors and asked them to pick the factors that were the most important for accelerating and encouraging innovation. Here’s what they said:

  • 74% said the freedom to experiment
  • 58% said psychological safety
  • 52% said executive encouragement
  • 47% said clear innovation goals/vision

If leaders intentionally shape their culture by following the simple truths I’ve highlighted, they will create an environment where these factors are present. When leaders make the first move to extend trust, team members know they have the freedom to take appropriate risks. Leaders who let go of control, remove fear of failure, admit their own mistakes, and treat them as learning opportunities truly empower their people to feel safe to unleash their creativity and try something new.

Trust sets the foundation for your team to have a spirit of fearless innovation. It’s not rocket science to build a culture of trust, but it does take intentional effort—and these simple truths will help you achieve that goal.

About the Author

Randy Conley

Randy Conley is the Vice President & Trust Practice Leader for Blanchard®. He is coauthor of Blanchard’s Building Trust training program and works with organizations around the globe, helping them build trust in the workplace. In 2022, Randy and Ken Blanchard coauthored Simple Truths of Leadership: 52 Ways to Be a Servant Leader and Build Trust, and most recently, Simple Truths of Leadership Playbook: A 52-Week Game Plan for Becoming a Trusted Servant Leader.

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