The Truth About Innovation: Why Front-Line Managers Play a Key Role

"Innovation" is one of those terms that's been so overused that it has lost its meaning somewhat.  Every organization seems to want to proclaim itself as innovative, yet employees spend most of their time battling red tape rather than coming up with groundbreaking ideas.  When a CEO talks about innovation, it usually means something big, ground-breaking, possibly disrupting an entire industry.  It doesn't seem like something that could apply for a manager leading a small team.  However, managers often have the opportunity to innovate in ways that really matter for an organization.  

There is a mystique around the word "innovation."  Some people think it doesn't apply to them or their work because you need to be a creative genius to be innovative.  Others feel hemmed in by the surrounding organizational bureaucracy and gave up trying to change things long ago.   Adam Grant's recent book, Originals: how noncomfomists change the world, blow these and other myths out of the water.  Grant pulls together research from a variety of disciplines and fields to show that anyone - yes, you too! - can be creative, and that truly successful innovation often doesn't come about the way we think it does.  This is a bit uncomfortable, as it means we no longer have any excuses.  But it is also an incredible opportunity to make our and our employees' work more meaningful, even if no one else ever knows about it.

Innovation has a purpose.

First, let's be clear about what we mean by innovation.  It's not about difference for difference's sake.  It is about making things better, often at a small scale, and about questioning the status quo.  One of the funniest bits of research mentioned in Originals is the finding that employee longevity and success could be predicted by whether or not they used the default browser on their computer, such as Internet Explorer or Safari, or whether they had switched to a non-default browser like Chrome or Firefox.  It's not that the browser itself mattered; it was that they didn't just accept the default and looked for something that worked better.  I like to think of innovation as continuous improvement, perhaps because that feels less intimidating, but also because it reminds me that there are always opportunities for innovation.  It doesn't have to be a big initiative.  In fact, incremental change is more likely to be successful and lasting specifically because it is smaller in scale.  

At its best, innovation is a mindset rather than an event.  It means not accepting "the way things have always been don" or "everyone does it like this" as final answers.  It also means continuous improvement   Innovation isn't just about being different - it's about being more effective. 

Innovation isn't about changing the world.  It's about changing the work.

One of the biggest misconceptions about innovation is that it has to be sweeping and huge.  We often think of entire companies, such as Apple or Toyota, rather than individual teams, so it seems like any one manager can't do much when it comes to being innovative.  At its core, though, innovation is about improvement, ideally continuous improvement.  It happens over time, and can be very incremental.  

Front-line managers are positioned far better than the CEO to identify the small tweaks and improvements that will make the biggest difference in achieving the organization's goals.  You can promote innovative thinking on your team by devoting one of your regular meetings (you have those, right??) to a group brainstorming session on ways to make your team's work better support the organization's objectives.  

Even if you manage a support team or a special group that is far removed from the company's core focus, there might still be ways to better align what you're doing, or even just how you do it, with the larger organization.

You don't need your boss's permission to be innovative.

Seth Godin writes extensively about the need to "pick yourself," and this is definitely a case where that philosophy applies.  Innovation by definition means change, and change means uncertainty.  This often raises resistance, justifiably or not,  and if you ask for permission first, it may not happen soon enough to matter.  

This is not an admonition to "ask for forgiveness not permission" and run amok.    It's actually more about finding ways to innovate that are small enough and low-risk enough that your boss doesn't need to know about them and approve them.  What is the smallest possible experiment you can do to figure out if an idea will work?  Can you scale it down even further than that, or reduce the risk even more?  Instead of overhauling an entire process, can you pilot a new approach with just one project or client?  Or maybe even just one phase of that project?

Running small-scale pilots accomplishes multiple things: you get to test the idea sooner and figure out what does and doesn't work about it, and you manage the risks so that you can reverse changes easily.  If the pilot works, you have a compelling business case to present to your manager, rather than just an idea. 

Innovation makes work more interesting and meaningful.

Doing the same things the same way, day in and day out, gets boring really fast.  However, sometimes, that's just the nature of the work.  You can't process payroll or respond to customer complaints some weeks and then do something else on the weeks you don't feel like focusing on that- the work still has to get done.  This can make it hard to keep your team focused and motivated, especially if you have bright go-getters who have capabilities beyond their daily tasks.  

One way to get around this is to encourage innovation and find ways the work can change, involving your employees throughout the process. Are there ways to streamline, to improve, to document more effectively?  Are there ways the work can be done that would be more enjoyable and fun?  

Zappos is a great example of this. Customer call centers are notoriously bleak places, with a focus on reducing time on calls and getting things done as quickly as possible.  Zappos has turned that model on its head, empowering employees to do what they think would be best in providing excellent customer service.  Not only that, the company creates a fun environment for what could be a very rote job by having theme days, putting up crazy decorations, and encouraging individuality as much as possible.  Employees still have to answer the phone and they still work in tiny cubicles, but the fact that those cubicles are colorful and personalized and that there might be streamers and balloons hanging from the ceiling makes the context of the work very different.  

The best part about this is that it will not be successful if you try to figure it out all by yourself - you need your employees' input on how to innovate their work.  It makes things more interesting for them, and easier for you, if you involve them in the process.

Related resources

  • Originals by Adam Grant.  This book is fantastic - it's about innovation, and change management, and mindset, and a whole bunch of other things... it's just so great.  It's the best business book I've read in a long while, and I read a lot!  It's also a fun read, so put it at the top of your list.
  • Linchpin, by Seth Godin.  You can apply this book to yourself and to your team in finding ways to be indispensable, and it will also help you to see why innovation is crucial to your career success.
  • Seth's blog.  Daily inspiration to help you be more innovative.  Short, sweet, and incredibly thought-provoking.  Prepare to be unsettled a bit.
  • Delivering Happiness, by Tony Hsieh.  Not as practical but inspirational nonetheless.

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