Intrapreneurs: How to Foster a Culture of Innovation at Work
When we talk about innovation, we often think about those big ideas that change the world. This makes us view the ability to innovate as a skill reserved for elite entrepreneurs or expert technologists. But in actual fact, we all have the ability to think outside the box.
Unfortunately, however, this ability is often stifled or even discouraged in the workplace, where aside from a handful of people at the top, the average employee is expected to get on with their jobs.
To survive and thrive in a constantly changing world, businesses will increasingly need to tap into the latent entrepreneurial spirit in all of their employees and create a workplace where innovation and creative thinking are standard practices at every level. Here are some ideas on how you can do this.
Take a broader view of innovation
You have to admit it, there’s a certain appeal to being an entrepreneur. They get to disrupt the status quo, bring new ideas to the market, and follow their own path. But it’s not all excitement and success, of course – life as an entrepreneur is packed full of uncertainty and risk. That’s why most of us opt instead for the relative security of full-time employment.
But employment needn’t be the end of entrepreneurial thinking – every company needs people that bring fresh ideas and new approaches.
In most businesses, however, the innovative thinking is done by only a small percentage of people – those whose job it is to turn bright ideas into new products, features, or services. Granted, such work requires a specific skill set that only a few have. But by looking at innovation in a broader sense, we can include everybody in the process of improvement.
Beyond its technological application, innovative thinking can be applied to other areas too, such as internal processes, the employee experience, and corporate culture. And who better to come up with ways to improve these things than employees themselves?
Your employees are in a unique position of being exposed to the inadequacies and inefficiencies of your current systems. They will know if they are needlessly complicated, frustrating, or slow.
Chances are, many go home and say to their partners or friends ‘it would be so much easier, faster, and better if we just did X instead of Y.’, or ‘Why can’t we do it more like this?’ This is the type of thinking you need to harness.
Create the right environment for innovation to flourish
For innovative thinking to become part of your organisation’s culture, you first need to focus on creating an environment where people feel safe to speak up and offer new ideas. This is known as a psychological safety.
In psychologically safe workplaces, employees can speak their minds without fear of being ignored, laughed at, criticised, or even punished. For this to work, they have to know that it’s OK to get things wrong, and that failure is a part of the process of improving.
In a broader sense, psychological safety relates to respect, inclusion, and trust. If you promote these ideas as central pillars of your workplace culture, psychological safety should naturally follow.
Leaders and managers have a big part to play here – in many cases, employees may be afraid to speak up around those in positions of power, for fear that it would endanger their position in some way. As a result, ideas that could improve the workplace are hidden or suppressed, and nothing changes.
For this reason, it’s important that managers and leaders encourage employees to use their voice – and that means being open to new ideas that challenge or even criticise current ones.
Psychologically safe work environments not only boost innovation; they also make employees feel more valued, accepted, and confident.
Make innovative thinking a standard practice
Once you have the right culture in place, it’s time to take practical steps to enable and empower your people to think like intrapreneurs.
As previously mentioned, it’s likely that your employees already have a good idea about what’s working and what isn’t – their exposure to internal processes, practices and policies makes them experts in this regard. The key is to give them a platform to discuss the problems as they see them, and to offer new and better alternatives.
The simplest way is to ask them. Employees regularly receive feedback on their performance and progress, but how often do we actually ask them for feedback? As part of regular check-ins, you could spend some time asking employees: ‘how could we improve the internal processes, environment and culture that shape your working life?’
Alternatively, these feedback sessions could happen periodically as a team brainstorming session, allowing groups to discuss openly the areas where improvement is needed, and the ideas they have that could make a difference.
To further promote a culture of innovation, you could even incentivise the process. Employees that generate ideas that are successfully adopted could receive a financial reward, or company-wide recognition. You could even have an ‘Innovator of the Year’ competition and award ceremony.
Whatever approach you choose, the bottom line is that to create a culture of innovation, you need to do more than just create innovation-related jobs. Instead of relying on a handful of individuals and teams to generate new ideas, you need to take a more holistic approach that includes everyone.
Innovation and creativity should not be siloed off from the rest of the organisation, but ingrained in the processes and culture at every level, and in every team and department.