Bridging the Innovation Gap: How to Foster a Culture of Creativity

November 27, 2018

Bridging the Innovation Gap: How to Foster a Culture of Creativity

Have you ever felt like you were expected to innovate but didn’t have enough time to do it? You’re not alone. Recent research shows this is a common problem for knowledge workers.

In Workfront’s 2018 State of Work Report, 58 percent of the more than 2,000 workers surveyed said they are so swamped with day-to-day work that they don’t have time to think. That means that daily tasks are being prioritized over innovation, which can lead to negative long-term issues like outdated processes, sub-par outcomes, and eventually, a company that is no longer able to compete in its industry.

However, in the same survey, 64 percent of respondents said their company leadership asks them to think of how to do things in a completely new way. 51 percent also reported that their workplace factors innovation into how their performance is measured. 

While half of workers say innovation is factored into their performance, just two in five say their companies encourage them to set aside time for it.

These statistics illustrate an all-too-common problem in many workplaces: a recognition of the necessity of innovation without appropriate resources being allocated to accomplish it. 

How can human resources executives bridge the gap between the need for innovation and the lack of resources available to make it happen? It starts with culture. 

Workplace culture can be defined as “the way things are done around here.” But cultures that consist of outdated processes, traditions that hold employees back, and structures that don’t allow for creativity can get in the way and prevent innovation. The solution is to deliberately create a culture where innovation can happen.

Here are four ways you can foster this kind of culture.

1. Factor Innovation into Project Management Plans
Workfront’s survey found that 54 percent of workers feel their team “would be more successful if all employees were given four hours a week to focus entirely on innovation.” One of the most effective ways you can make time for innovation is to include it in your project management plans. Timelines and calendars should include time for brainstorms and allow employees to do research or think of projects in a new way, so innovative ideas can shine through.

Between answering emails, writing reports, and checking tasks of their lists, team members don’t have the time to produce new ideas. But, if you intentionally block out time for innovation, you’ll start to see that change.

Joey Reiman, CEO of BrightHouse, an innovation consulting firm that works with clients like Coca-Cola and Delta Airlines, gives his employees five “Your Days” a year—days set aside for off-campus creativity.

“The five last bastions of thinking are the car, the john, the shower, the church or synagogue, and the gym,” Reiman says. Blocking out time for contemplation will make your workplace a “bastion of thinking,” where creativity flows and innovative solutions are the norm.

2. Implement the Hollywood Model of Work
Look at your organizational structure and ask yourself if it is conducive to a culture of innovation. If you work on strict teams and lines between departments are formally set, you may not have the ideal environment for innovation.

As you plan projects, consider implementing the Hollywood model of work. In film production, people with all kinds of skills—directors, camera operators, costume designers, stunt actors, musicians—come together and work as a single team until the project is complete. Then, the team disbands and its members begin work on a different project with a new group.

This allows teams to leverage the exact talent, resources, and people they need to provide the best output in the most efficient way, freeing up more time for creativity. Rather than assigning pre-determined teams projects as they come along, form teams around project demands to make room for more innovative thinking.

3. Eliminate Innovation-inhibiting Processes
In a previous position, I worked at a company that promoted employee confidence with a reward program called “Empower.” As a vice president in purchasing, I found that I needed approval to buy a book for my team because all educational expenses needed approval from someone at a higher management level. 

This process didn’t send the best message about the company culture and made it feel like a workplace where employees aren’t encouraged to seek educational opportunities on their own and where taking initiative is discouraged.

That experience showed me how powerful processes can be when it comes to shaping company culture. To foster a culture of innovation, you need to be sure that your employees have the autonomy to actually innovate.

Review processes and eliminate any that inhibit innovation. Make sure employees are aware of resources they have (such as educational materials, time to reflect about a project without distractions, or a physical space for brainstorming sessions, for example) that will help them be more innovative.

4. Make Innovation a Team Sport
It’s hard to get creative when your boss is leaning over your shoulder. Give your teams the freedom and space they need to innovate by avoiding micromanaging their every move.

When managers step back and allow teams to execute plans in the way they deem appropriate, employees’ confidence will increase and they will have the autonomy to come up with innovative solutions. 

This kind of hands-off approach will leave room for new ideas to take hold because team members won’t find themselves held back by a manager’s “my way or the highway” attitude, with no room to try something new.

Micromanaging can also take away time that is better spent collaborating and innovating. The 2018 State of Work Report revealed that 42 percent of millennials said their workplace does not foster innovation, and they are more likely to report their productivity and innovation would improve with more time to focus. In other words, let employees do what they do best, and don’t hold them back with micromanagement.

Business consultant and innovation thought leader Jane Stevenson believes that each member is vital to a team’s ability to innovate. “It starts at the top, but innovation is a team sport. Each person needs to feel that they matter, that the outcome wouldn’t be the same without their contribution,” she said.

While leaders are responsible for instilling a project’s vision within the team and organizing resources, innovation will flourish when each member knows how their contribution is key to the project’s success and feels confident enough to bring innovative ideas to the table.

By making creativity part of your project plans, forming teams around project demands, eliminating processes that suppress original ideas, and stepping back and letting teams achieve goals in new ways, you can transform your culture and make innovation just part of “the way we do things.”

The Authors: 

Laura Butler is Senior Vice President of People and Culture at Workfront.