5 Ways Leaders Can Encourage Innovation

A business leader helping brainstorm new solutions with her team
A business leader helping brainstorm new solutions with her team

The culture of business is always changing. As consumer needs and technological advances shift the landscape, companies can be left in the dust when they refuse to adapt. To stay ahead of the curve, businesses must embrace disruptive innovation, changing their strategies and services as their client base evolves. Regardless of industry, developing an innovation strategy is the key to building and maintaining a successful business.

Innovation is a buzzword that seems attractive to managers and executives across many industries, but only some know how to embrace it. Innovative cultures are formed by intentional leaders who understand that creativity, risk, and teamwork must be prioritized at every level within the company. 

Take Nordstrom, a major retailer in the United States, for example. Company leaders made sales figures from all departments and stores available to their employees. Allowing everyone to study these data points empowered sales staff to find innovative ways to boost revenue in underperforming departments. 

When sales staff realized that sunglasses sales were down, managers asked the IT department to create a try-on application using in-store iPads. Instead of creating the software remotely, designers headed to the sales floor to learn what customers wanted most. Then, they built software to meet those specific needs. 

This is the power of involving an entire company in innovative efforts. Employees get a valuable morale boost when departments work together to solve problems creatively. In this case, the iPad try-on worked. But even if it hadn’t, innovative companies must be willing to take this kind of calculated collaborative risk to build their desired culture. 38% of companies have implemented systems that help them respond positively to failure. Not every idea succeeds, but fostering a culture of innovation must allow creativity and vision to flourish, regardless of the success of a singular initiative. 


How to Foster a Culture of Innovation as a Leader

Truly successful companies know how to move from isolated innovative efforts to a culture of strategic risk-taking, team building, and creativity. Most company leaders earn their position with industry expertise, but soft skills like empathy, influence, and ethical thinking can help them push past the status quo and become exceptional innovators in any field. Innovation thrives when leaders attempt to create synergy between management and employees, rather than creating a culture of control from the top down. This servant leadership style empowers every individual within their role and creates space for new leaders to develop. 

Innovation in the workplace brings myriad benefits. It boosts system efficiency and employee productivity, promotes the development of new services, products, and marketing efforts, and helps companies solve problems and implement new ideas. And it’s no longer limited to the four walls of an office. Inventive and imaginative managers and executives also excel in leading a remote workforce. Whether leading an in-person team or building a company culture online, you can become an innovative leader by cultivating these five skills.


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5 Meaningful Ways Leaders Can Encourage Innovation 


1. Empower others to make decisions. 

Micromanagement is an innovation killer. When companies get stuck in top-down decision-making, efficiency wanes and employees become less productive as they wait for approval. On the other hand, innovative companies have harnessed the power of permitted autonomy. When leaders permit their teams to implement new ideas or initiatives independently, they demonstrate trust in their employees. 

Successful innovation efforts often happen when companies are willing to let their employees work from the ground up. Even if a C-suite executive pitches a big idea, its effectiveness could hinge on the ability of individual departments to build an implementation that works without unnecessary oversight. To lead effectively, you must be willing to give your team authority to make and execute decisions without excessive supervision. 


2. Create space for creativity. 

Good leaders ask good questions. Rather than focusing solely on the day-to-day operations of your business, offer your employees a place to discuss new ideas and creative solutions without judgment. If every out-of-the-box idea is discouraged, your team won’t feel safe enough to share their proposed ideas or solve problems creatively – which means you could be missing out on a million-dollar idea. 

If you’re unsure how to encourage workplace creativity, ask your team! They may be sitting on ideas that could foster collaboration and creative space for the entire organization. And when you do find time and space for creative conversations, be thoughtful about your responses. To foster a truly innovative work environment, team members must feel heard and validated, even if you don’t run with every idea they bring to the table. 


3. Become a good listener. 

Whether you’re leading a large team meeting or sitting down for a one-on-one check-in, step into your appointment ready to listen and engage. Becoming a good listener is one of the most invaluable soft skills you can acquire as a leader. When team members trust that you truly hear them, they’ll feel like valued company members, giving them the confidence to use their voice in innovative efforts. 

Just as importantly, listening to your employees gives you access to key insights you may never glean from your perspective. Team members want to feel appreciated and included, but they also bring frontline viewpoints you need to hear. Servant leaders attempt to develop and elevate others rather than passing off good ideas as their own, and this brings a positive ripple effect throughout the company. When people know that their ideas are valued, they feel valued as well. To become an innovative leader, learn to listen well and implement what you hear. Best of all, when you listen and communicate well as a leader, you foster those traits in everyone you lead.


4. Develop a tolerance for failure. 

Innovation requires risk, and not every risk pays off. But opting for the road already traveled leaves little room for groundbreaking ideas that have the potential to propel your business forward. Create space for these ideas, and make sure your team knows that some of them won’t be successful. No innovator has a 100% success rate, no matter how brilliant or creative they may be. 

Instead of fearing failure, teach your team how to fail fast and fail well. “Failing fast” occurs when you allow small-scale experimentation without much lead time. Testing new ideas on an abbreviated schedule will enable you to see which methods have the potential for larger successful rollouts – and which should be left on the cutting room floor. But don’t shame or punish your team for “unsuccessful” efforts. Instead, show them how to fail well by framing the ideas that don’t work as opportunities for education and growth.


5. Reward success. 

When an innovative idea sticks the landing, give the responsible team members the credit they deserve. Nothing kills innovation faster than executives taking responsibility for their team's work on a project instead of praising them for their ingenuity. Humble leaders share the spotlight, and team morale improves because of it. 

To foster innovation consistently, build rewards into your employee objectives. Consider adding key performance indicators (KPIs) or employee bonuses that applaud innovative ideas. When your team helps your company in meaningful ways, you should reward them meaningfully in return. These incentives do not necessarily need to be financial but should provide value to the recipient. Ensure that the reward for success supersedes the cost of failing, and watch your team become more innovative with every passing season. 


Equipping the Innovative Leaders of Tomorrow

If you’re an aspiring leader wanting to take the next step in your career, earning your Ed.D. in leadership can help you inspire change in your workplace and community. Great leaders can drive and shape an organization to embrace, foster and promote individual and collective innovation at every level. 

At Spalding University, we’re passionate about developing ethical, innovative leaders who want to inspire change in their industries, communities, and the world. Our online EdD: Leadership degree offers a mission-minded program that addresses modern workplace issues and prepares leaders to innovate their way into a brighter future. 

With ten courses delivered one at a time, you can earn your Online Ed.D in two years while maintaining your current workplace responsibilities and personal lifestyle. Throughout your coursework, you’ll learn how to foster innovation in your workplace, assess infrastructure and organizational dynamics, implement transformative processes, and build a strong team.

If you’re ready to lead effectively in a diverse world and global economy, becoming a Doctor of Education at Spalding University gives you a competitive advantage in your career and prepares you to become a valuable innovator for years to come. Spalding supports you wherever you are in your leadership journey. Connect with an enrollment advisor to get started. 


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