Get Creative

Six ways to encourage innovation on your team.

By Kathy Northamer

Innovation Is the backbone of every successful company. It's what sets a business apart from the competition and helps it grow and prosper. However, getting staff to think creatively isn't always easy.

In a survey by Robert Half, 35 percent of executives said the greatest roadblock to organizational breakthroughs is a lack of new ideas. Executives also cited excessive bureaucracy (24 percent) and being bogged down with daily tasks or "putting out fires" (20 percent) as other major barriers.

Here are six ways to overcome those challenges and encourage creativity on your team:

1. Give employees a reason to care. The fact is, if people aren't feeling connected to your company, there's little incentive for them to be innovative. Make sure staff are in the loop on your firm's strategies and challenges, and invite their input. Employees who are involved early on in planning will be motivated to see those plans through to completion. Give staff the power to make decisions and take action. People who are trusted to take safe risks and attempt new ways of doing things just may stumble across that next great business solution.

2. Don't make staff jump through hoops. You may think it's easy for employees to offer their ideas, but is it really? If managers are constantly behind closed doors and meetings tend to be one-way discussions, the message to staff is that their feedback isn't welcome. Make sure you and other leaders keep your office doors open as much as possible, and let employees know directly that their ideas are always valued.

3. Rethink competition. Setting up contests for individuals at work can be useful for goals such as achieving sales targets. However, be cautious about creating a work environment that is too competitive when you're trying to encourage innovation. When employees are aiming for a reward, they may be reluctant to speak 

up for fear that their suggestions will be stolen. Instead, promote the value of collaboration. For example, when launching a new project, you might pair employees to develop ideas for the best ways to tackle different aspects of the project. Encourage open communication and a team-first atmosphere.

4. Calm the naysayers. A key reason people hesitate to offer fresh proposals is because they worry what others might say. No one wants to have their ideas shot down immediately or become fodder for jokes. Make sure you're doing all you can to make it safe to brainstorm. Even if someone makes an unrealistic suggestion, thank the person for thinking creatively.

5. Ease up. Employees who've been working sixty-hour weeks for months on end aren't very likely to make notable contributions other than completing basic assignments. Make preventing burn-out a high priority. Developing programs that promote work-life balance, such as offering telecommuting or paid time off for volunteer work can help. Redistribute workloads when necessary and consider bringing in temporary professionals during peak demands to keep everyone fresh and focused.

6. Set the example. Recognize that as a leader, you are the model for the entire team. If you never think creatively with your own work, you can't really expect your employees to do the opposite.

Finally, take a serious look at the skill sets in your group. When was the last time you supported training and education for your employees? People need to be given the tools to think innovatively and that includes keeping their knowledge and expertise up-to-date. With the right management approach and support, you can not only help your staff enhance their contributions, but also make your workplace a better one.