5 Realities That Drive Innovation  

Newsflash: You don’t have to cure cancer, go on Shark Tank, be in tech, or work for a trendy Startup firm to innovate. 

 The good news is there’s space for all of us to innovate in whatever our chosen specialty. You don’t have to revolutionize your field or the world. Here’s my short list of the five most important things we need to remember if we want to drive innovation in our teams:

 #1 – If you’re going to define a goal or competency solely around “innovation,” do so carefully.

Innovation can’t be defined up front.  If you could, it wouldn’t be innovative. This isn’t necessarily a bad approach — but it’s no good if you define all the particulars upfront because you’ll cut any space to be creative.  You’re only going to get true innovation if you’re willing to listen and provide coaching to employees who take the initiative to be creative and come to you with new ideas.

#2 – Innovation isn’t more of whatever “meets expectation” looks like in an employee’s goals or performance competencies. 

Too often, I find managers defining “exceeds expectation” as more of whatever is listed under “meets expectations.” That may be appropriate based on your business (cough… cough… sales) but if you’re expecting true innovation in roles that are not production-based, that approach will never get you any closer to the cutting edge. Innovation is different than extra meets expectation. It might lead to more, but it’s the idea generation and execution that adds truly significant value to the company you’re working for.

 #3 – Innovation is like art – you know it when you see it.

Reserve “exceeds expectation” for true innovation… which means you’ll have to flex those managerial observation muscles. Brainstorm with the employee about the types of things that could add value but don’t spoon feed them ideas. The key upside to this approach is that you’re engaging and empowering your employees to take what they do to the next level— create ways to add significant value. That can’t be bad.

 #4 – It doesn’t have to mean fewer donuts get made.  

We tend to get so caught up with trying to innovate that we lose sight of where the real value lies. Sometimes, this can mean that performance slips in other areas as employees pursue their new ideas. As a manager, you want innovation that adds value — which often means the donuts get made faster or better —  that means being committed to coaching and brainstorming with the employee about their ideas to ensure they’re on target with your business.

 #5 – Innovation isn’t for everyone. 

Not everyone is a star employee.  Not everyone wants to innovate, and that’s okay.  We need those people in our organizations too — otherwise we’ll constantly wrestle with excessive turnover. Remember – the world needs ditch diggers too.  Encourage and empower your employees to be creative (and exceed expectations), but if it’s not absolutely essential to that role, not innovating isn’t a bad thing.  Reserve “exceeds expectation” for innovation and creativity and you’ll go a long way towards encouraging the potential innovators on your team to get off the fence and go for it.

Be open to new possibilities, try new things, get comfortable with ambiguity (and failing sometimes), and ultimately find a solution that adds value to someone. Be intentional in your coaching conversations, goal setting, and performance management.

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