To Survive and Thrive, Engage Everyone in Innovation

March 21, 2024 Ken Blanchard

Innovation requires change, and change is hard. I often joke with audiences that the only one who likes change is a baby with a wet diaper. But unless they want outdated products, stale services, and dwindling revenues, leaders need to encourage innovation throughout their organizations.

I say “throughout their organizations” because it’s a mistake to rely solely on top leadership and product designers to come up with innovative ideas. That’s like sitting on a gold mine and digging down only six inches. Some of the greatest new ideas have come from deep within organizations, not from the C suite or R&D lab.

A Team with a $27 Billion Idea

An example of how team members can generate innovative ideas can be found in the story of Slack, a popular office productivity platform used by clients like Uber, NASA, and Target. Slack was created by a team that was working on an online game called Glitch. The game was released in 2011 and didn’t last long in the market. But the internal communication tools the team members were using when they were developing Glitch were so innovative that they were released as a new product called Slack in 2014. In 2020, Slack Technologies was acquired by Salesforce for more than $27 billion.

Engaging Everyone in Innovation

The people in your organization who are creating products, delivering services, and dealing directly with customers know first-hand the needs and opportunities of the business. That’s why they are often better sources for innovative ideas than those “whose job it is” to come up with new ideas, products, and processes.

If you want to engage everyone in your organization to innovate, take the following four steps.

Step One: Tell them. Leadership needs to make it clear to everyone in the company that they are encouraged to brainstorm, experiment, and think outside of the box. Make this message explicit and deliver it through companywide meetings, team meetings, and regular channels of communication.

Step Two: Train them. In most organizations there is very little support to help people become more innovative at work. Yet as in the case of Slack Technologies, big things can happen when every employee becomes more innovative.

One of the most powerful ways leaders can support innovation is through training. We recently launched a program called Fearless Innovation that teaches people an innovation mindset and real-world skills that can lead to profitable changes. Our goal is help our clients by empowering all of their people to become innovators.

Step Three: Reward new ideas. Leaders can encourage innovation by positively responding to new ideas. Even if an idea may not be feasible, leaders should adopt a “Yes, tell me more” rather than a “I’m not sure that will work” attitude. When a direct report comes to you with a new idea, welcome it. A great way to foster innovation within an organization is to create internal awards and recognition for innovative ideas.

Step Four: Extend grace when ideas fail. Just as people need assurance that their ideas will be met with open minds, they also need grace when those ideas aren’t perfect and experiments don’t achieve hoped for results. Extend grace and praise progress, not perfection. Even if the idea fails, you can focus on what was learned from the effort and applaud your direct report for trying something new. My good friend and former CEO of The WD-40 Company, Garry Ridge, often says, “Never punish a learner!” There’s a corollary to that: “Never punish an innovator!”

When the Going Gets Tough, Innovate!

Whenever our company has been faced with a tough situation, we’ve always invited everyone in the organization to come up with solutions. For example, when revenues dropped steeply after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, we had a companywide meeting where we encouraged everyone, regardless of their role, to help the organization survive financially. If someone became aware that the company was making unnecessary expenditures, we encouraged them to question the purchase or investment.  If someone became aware of an inefficiency, we welcomed their ideas on a smarter approach. If someone saw an opportunity to increase revenue, we invited them to make it happen.

Thanks to everyone’s willingness to innovate after 9/11, we not only made it through the crisis—we were also able to take the whole company to Hawaii to celebrate!

 Innovating in the Aftermath of a Global Pandemic

When COVID-19 shut down classroom learning, our industry was hit hard. Thanks to our company’s commitment to innovation, we were prepared to pivot to online learning. Our Office of the Future—which looked at trends five, ten, and twenty years out—had anticipated the importance of digital technology, so people were already delivering our products and services online when the pandemic hit.

Today the Office of the Future has evolved into Blanchard’s Innovation Lab and our company has continued its commitment to innovation. For example, to better serve our clients and colleagues, we restructured into a matrixed organization, creating business units and centers of excellence. The results have been exceptional. Last year we achieved the highest revenue in the history of our 45-year-old company.

What are you doing to assure that your organization is ready for the inevitable challenges ahead? Create a culture of innovation by encouraging, training, rewarding, and extending grace to your people as they dare to make things better.

About the Author

Ken Blanchard

Dr. Ken Blanchard is the cofounder and Chief Spiritual Officer of Blanchard®, an international management training and consulting firm. Ken is the coauthor of The One Minute Manager, as well as 65 other books with combined sales totaling more than 21 million copies.

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