Inspiring innovation in the workplace

It was the famous 19th-century steel industrialist Andrew Carnegie who said, “Teamwork is the ability to work together towards a common vision, the ability to direct individual accomplishments toward organisational objectives. It is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results.”

By Harry Welby-Cooke

There are literally thousands of pearls of wisdom gleaned from great thinkers throughout the ages that underscore the importance of innovation in the workplace. In fact, it is probably because of the sheer amount of advice out there that many managers and business owners simply accept innovation as a happy accident in business — something that can’t be planned and often can’t be explained.

One may be tempted to assume that bringing together a number of employees with complementary skills in a project-group will automatically result in a high-performing team capable of innovation. Experienced managers and business owners, however, understand that a group doesn’t automatically make a team; and not all teams can innovate above and beyond their core roles.

In its best manifestations, teamwork really does create a ‘whole’ that is more than the sum of its parts, allowing, as Carnegie put it, “common people to achieve uncommon results”.

Innovation is not an end-result and goal in itself; it is a by-product of teams that are well-organised, well-resourced and creatively inspired. A team which is not functioning perfectly on the roles it has already been assigned, will find it impossible to exceed them.

Achieving team unity
In any workplace, particularly in a country as culturally diverse as South Africa, the job at hand may be the only thing some team members have in common with their peers. This tenuous link must be strengthened and reinforced if such a diverse team is to work together successfully.

It seems every manager who has ever succeeded in putting together a ‘Dream Team’ has a secret formula for success. In reality, there is no magic method for assembling a team that delivers creative innovation; every team consists of different people who respond uniquely to their environment.

In my experience, team unity and the innovation it fosters is as much, if not more, a product of management practices as it is a product of the team members’ efforts. Here are a few tips I’ve picked up that, while they cannot act as a panacea for every problem affecting team performance, can be useful for keeping a team on track and inspiring innovation.

The role of the leader
Great leaders know that innovation comes from many sources, both inside and outside of the company. When people with different points of view and experiences converge, they create a type of innovation that individuals cannot achieve alone.

Every leader must be a zealous agent for change and inspire their team members to do the same. It is the leader’s job to steer the team to excellence through supervision and guidance; to challenge team members to think critically and drive continuous improvement. This is the kind of constructive disruption that ultimately leads to innovation.

In an environment where embracing risk is the norm and every task presents an opportunity, innovation becomes second nature. Achieving such an atmosphere in a working team is easier said than done, so close management is critical. To strike the perfect balance, team leaders must be prepared to make continual adjustments and improvements along the way. Correcting the course in this way ensures the best possible fit among team members and keeps them on their toes, teaching them to adapt to new environments, personalities, situations and circumstances.

Room to breathe
If you want employees to engage in heated debates and brainstorming sessions that deliver incredible results, a dedicated project room as the forum for such debates will be more effective than meeting around a desk or in a cramped corner of the office.

A light and airy locale set-up with whiteboards, an Internet connection, stationery and audio-visual equipment that reflects the value placed on new ideas, is more likely to encourage innovation. By making the project room a central feature of your office space, staff members will feel emboldened to take part and add their input.

Pencil it in
No business can claim that innovation is a priority if they don’t allow their employees the time to innovate. To encourage an environment of creativity and problem-solving, set aside time dedicated to this purpose; teams should schedule brainstorming sessions every week or even once a month. You’ll soon find that getting creative in these face-to-face sessions is something that your teams look forward to, and it will result in more and more innovative ideas as time goes on.

Promote healthy conflict
Innovative ideas often come from extremely unlikely places (and people), but innovation, by definition, means going against the norm, thinking outside the box and being different. A team whose members feel that they are not being heard, or that they are being dictated to, is a team where innovation cannot happen. Team members need to feel that even unconventional ideas can be entertained and discussed and that their opinions and ideas are valued. Your business’ next golden idea could at this very moment be sitting inside the mind of an employee who is too timid to share it. Team managers must strive to balance the individual with the collective and weigh up established best-practices with unconventional approaches.

Every team is unique and its performance is affected not only by its internal environment, but also various external forces. Every team should, to a certain extent, govern themselves, but if it is to truly achieve uncommon results, it should be guided by good management practices and, in the initial stages at least, be closely monitored. The best ideas are those that come from an environment of collaboration and communication and it is your job as a business leader to create and nurture it. Only once your staff has the freedom and the confidence to experiment and challenge the status quo, will they be able to create value for your business through innovative thinking.