Encouraging Innovation by Treating Employees like Entrepreneurs

Innovation has been quite the buzz word over the last decade or two, and many organizations have figured out how to truly encourage creativity and autonomy in their employees—which means if your leadership team is still struggling with innovation, you’re behind. Creating an innovative environment requires a paradigm shift in the way we view employees. We must learn to see employees as entrepreneurs and shape an environment that gives them the resources and freedom to spread their wings. At the same time, we must address common challenges that entrepreneurs face and clear the path to successful innovation.

Treat employees like entrepreneurs

Let’s think for a minute about the typical entrepreneur. If you are going after your own, independent idea, a few things can be assumed:

  1. You care deeply about the work and intended result.
  2. You have the power to make your own choices.
  3. You don’t have to deal with any red tape or bureaucracy.
  4. You have the time and freedom to work on your idea.

An employee is more likely to care about their work and intended result when they understand the overall strategy and challenges of the organization. Keep your employees informed the way you would a business partner (i.e., not some watered down, edited version). Also, give them the autonomy to choose their approach to a problem. Minimize directives and remember to trust your employees to come up with a smart solution. This also ties into #2—give employees the power to make their own choices.

Do what you can to minimize red tape. If you start an innovation program, then add a ton of paperwork and overhead, you’ll turn off your best entrepreneurs. The more creative a person, the more allergic they are to bureaucracy. Also, red tape implies lack of trust. Depending on your role you may not have full control, but do what you can to eliminate roadblocks and extra checkboxes.

How can you give employees time and freedom to work on their ideas? Many articles suggest scheduling time for innovation—I couldn’t disagree more. My solution is to cut out as much scheduling as possible. Let employees manage their own time. Let them work on what they want, when they want. Eliminate arbitrary deadlines. At the risk of being repetitive—trust them. If these ideas make you uncomfortable, I suggest reading “Rework” from the founders of 37signals. This image is from the back of the book jacket. It will give you an idea of what the book teaches.

Ease entrepreneurial challenges

We must also consider the things that often get in the entrepreneur’s way. Let’s talk about two common challenges: fear of failure and burnout.

Fear of failure is likely the biggest roadblock to innovation. The best way to combat fear of failure is to encourage failure. Failure is not the opposite of success, it is part of success. Reward all creative ideas and attempts at innovation. Explain to employees that you expect and encourage failure—that voicing failed ideas is the only way to find the successful ones. Say it and mean it. If your employees see you displaying this attitude, they will adopt it too.

At the same time, different personality types may prefer different ways of sharing innovation. Provide multiple avenues: encourage ideas in group meetings, in writing, and in one-on-one meetings with leadership. I would suggest not encouraging anonymous ideas—this method works against the idea that failure is rewarded. Stick with the idea that failure is expected and wanted.

A burnt-out employee is not an innovative employee. Sometimes employees are overworked because of high demands, but other times it’s simply that the employee decides to work too often and creates their own stress. No matter the cause, it’s leadership’s responsibility to talk to the employee and figure out why they are overworked—then work together on a solution.

I recently witnessed a team member who was working too much because of his own love of the work and desire to get things done. His team leader recognized that the team member was becoming stressed and repeatedly encouraged him to take some time for himself—but he didn’t. Eventually, he had a panic attack and had no choice but to take some time from work. In this situation, the team leader was right to be concerned and did all they could to encourage a break. While the team member didn’t listen at first, he knew his team leader would be supportive when things really broke down. Stories like this underline that it’s important for leaders to keep an eye out for burnout and address it quickly.

Do you have other ideas about creating an innovative environment? What has worked well in your organization? I’d love to hear your thoughts below.

Photo: Shutterstock

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