How to Develop a More Innovative Team
This article originally appeared on Microlearning, our bite-sized online solution for leaders and individual contributors.
Would you rather have a team that plods along with the status quo and gets caught by surprise when a change hits? Or a team that drives change by exploring new ideas?
Follow these tips to create an environment that fosters innovation.
1. Give your direct reports access to big-picture information — and help them see how their work fits in.
Your team can’t improve their piece of the puzzle in a meaningful way if they can’t see the full picture — and how their piece connects to the other pieces. When they have that expanded view, they can bring better ideas for what to improve and ensure that those improvements dovetail with what other teams are doing.
To sharpen your team’s view and help them drive changes for the biggest impact:
- Encourage them to build relationships outside the team. When appropriate, suggest that they reach out to colleagues who can broaden their view when they have a question (e.g., “Simone on the customer support team may have some interesting insight for you on this — she talks to customers every day”).
- Keep them informed about what higher-ups are thinking. Hear that another team is taking on a project to win over certain new customers or that the executive team is considering investing more in marketing? Even if decisions aren’t final, sharing details from above can spark valuable discussions about how your team might contribute and encourage them to think ahead about adjustments that will need to be made.
- Coach them to think about how their work connects to company goals and initiatives. Consider regularly reiterating company goals and strategy in team meetings. And in their 1-on-1s, regularly talk about how their work supports company goals. When you get new information — about a strategic shift, for instance — suggest they come up with possible answers to questions like “How might this affect what we’re doing in six months? In three years?”
2. Promote a team culture of curiosity and continuous learning.
Routines are comfortable, but can be dangerously so. If your direct reports adhere rigidly to “that’s how we do it here,” they can become complacent or even resistant to changing things for the better.
Creating a culture that encourages growth starts with you. “Managers need to be comfortable talking about questions they don’t have the answers to,” says FranklinCovey change expert Curtis Bateman. “When managers stop feeling threatened by what they don’t know and start viewing it as an opportunity to explore, they lead their teams to be more creative and to challenge old ways of thinking.”
To help your team embrace curiosity and learning:
- Freely admit what you don’t know. And get your team’s perspectives (e.g., “I’m not sure — what do you think could be causing that?” or “I don’t know the best way to improve this — what ideas do you have?”) to encourage them to come up with their own ideas rather than relying on you for answers.
- Set a team learning goal. Leaders naturally tend to focus on their main performance goal (e.g., sell 500 units this quarter or launch the new product by January 15). But a goal that helps your team discover a better way of doing things (e.g., test three sales approaches in the new market to learn what prospects in that segment respond to) can lead to big payoffs.
- Regularly ask your team to spot opportunities for improvement. Whether in 1-on-1s or team meetings, ask direct reports questions that signal that it’s important to keep getting better. You might ask for their thoughts about work in general (e.g., “What’s something we could be doing better?” or “What part of our work is harder than it needs to be?”); about a particular topic (e.g., “What is our biggest opportunity to increase value for our customers?”); or about a recent change (e.g., “What could this change allow us to pursue now?”).
- Express confidence in your team’s ability to figure things out through trial and error. Change can be scary because you can’t be sure the new way will work. Your confidence can provide your team with a strong dose of courage. For example, “We’re trying this for the first time, so chances are it won’t go perfectly. That’s OK — we’ll learn a lot that we can apply next time. And I have confidence in our ability to work through challenges and find a good way forward.”
3. Give your direct reports the time and structure to come up with new ideas.
You can’t just tell your direct reports “Go innovate!” and expect brilliance. Especially if you have them executing on another project with tight deadlines and no space to think, let alone try new things.
Finding new, better ways to work takes time. Be realistic by doing the following:
- To help them prioritize, tell your direct reports how much of their time they should dedicate to experimentation. Three hours a week? Ten hours a week? Then help them protect that time by refraining from peppering them with urgent requests.
- With your team, discuss what they can stop doing. For example, producing a monthly report that isn’t widely read to make room for innovation.
- Schedule deadlines and check-ins to keep things moving. Especially at the beginning of a project, it can be hard to figure out how to start. Decide on a doable task and a reasonable timeline (e.g., complete our first one-hour brainstorm by next Friday). Certain stages of projects might require more time to allow your team to try various approaches, but always schedule checkpoints to ensure things are advancing and to adjust course if needed.
4. Measure everything.
If you don’t have a sense of where things stand, then it’s nearly impossible to determine what would be better and whether the change makes a difference.
- Business results. Like customer satisfaction scores, sales figures, reduction in errors, or costs over time.
- Behaviors that influence results. Top-line results — such as year-over-year customer satisfaction scores or annual sales figures — are shaped by what your team does daily or weekly to pursue their goals. Tracking “lead measures” like how many quality assurance checks per month or customer calls per day your team makes can help ensure that you and your team are putting in the work to improve those top-line numbers.
- Team collaboration or collaboration with others. One innovative company that FranklinCovey change expert Bateman worked with rated every meeting on a scale of one to five. “If you gave it anything below a four, you had to say what would need to happen for it to be a four or five,” he says. “They were challenging themselves to improve not only their products but also their day-to-day. It was a whole mindset shift.”
5. Focus on only one or two improvement areas at a time.
You and your direct reports may feel a sense of urgency to change lots of things right away — but that’s a recipe for chaos.
To choose the one or two areas to focus on, gather input from:
- Your direct reports. Which of the team’s ideas for improvement are most useful to the them? to other teams? to your company?
- Peer managers whose teams affect or are affected by your work. Ask questions like:
- “Are you planning any improvements my team could help with?”
- “What improvement could we make to most help your team?”
- “If my team tries to change X, how would that affect you and what would it take for you to consider that change a success?”
- Your manager. What areas do they see as ripe for improvement and which improvements would be most valuable to the organization? Share with your boss what you learned from your team and peers to make a case for any additional opportunities you see.
Based on what you learn, decide which area to focus on.
6. Pick an idea to try, and start with a small experiment.
Innovating doesn’t mean just trying new stuff and hoping for the best. It’s a deliberate process: running small tests — for fast results so failures don’t cause major damage — then learning, refining, and trying again until you’re ready to launch on a larger scale.
To run a rigorous process, be sure that you and your team have identified:
- What you’re trying to achieve. For example, you want to increase sales at your store, and you think improving the store layout could help.
- What idea is worth pursuing — and why. You might ask three members of your team to spend an hour coming up with ideas to change the store layout by Tuesday. On Tuesday, you evaluate the layout ideas, weighing the disruption each change would cause and the potential payoff. For example, if we move this shelf, it won’t take long, and we’ll sell more candy. If we move this whole section, it’ll take a lot more work, but we’ll probably sell more refrigerators. Selling more refrigerators would have a bigger sales impact, so you decide to pursue that idea.
- A small-scale way to test the idea. Before moving all the refrigerators, you create a smaller display of just a few refrigerators and see what happens.
- What measurements to use to evaluate the results. For example, sales numbers, time-in-store data, a customer survey, etc. Decide how long you will test the idea and how you’ll determine what’s working and not working. What will you do if the results are inconclusive?
After the test results are in, hold a team debrief to talk through what happened. Take the elements of your test that worked and use them for more of your process or have more people try them the next time. Drop or modify the parts that didn’t work or were inconclusive. Then keep learning, adapting, and trying again until the work area is as good as you can get it (or as good as it needs to be).
For more, see 8 Tactics for Better Innovation.
7. Embrace failure, and change course cheerfully when things don’t turn out as hoped.
Effective change demands humility — and agility. What you thought would work often won’t succeed the first time. As a leader, you need to constantly remind yourself and your team that the most important thing is learning and finding a good way forward. If you don’t acknowledge that any idea can be improved on, you set yourself up for mediocre results.
Here are ways to cultivate this agile, change-friendly mindset:
- Express excitement when experiment results debunk your existing view. Evidence that contradicts your expectations lets you course-correct before it’s too late. That’s gold. A comment from you like “This is awesome — we’ve learned something fascinating about what doesn’t work that will help us find a better way going forward” signals to your team that you’re truly interested in learning and that you understand the gritty trial and error that success requires.
- Recognize team members for experimenting even (or especially) when the data points to failure. For example, when a direct report’s test email subject line reduces reader engagement, you comment, “I’m so glad you tried that subject line — we’ve learned something about our users’ top concerns. Thank you for being data-driven.”