How leaders are killing workplace innovation

Great ideas are often stifled because too many managers are afraid to take risks, warns one leading academic.

Every single day ideas are being stifled due to risk-averse managers who refuse to let their staff challenge the status quo, according to Dr Amantha Imber, Founder of the innovation consultancy Inventium, and author of The Innovation Formula.
“These managers regularly utter the deadly phrase ‘Yes, but we tried that last year and it didn’t work’, while those that do try and fail are punished,” said Dr Imber.
She added that micro-management happens frequently, leaving no room for innovation to occur.
“The good news is that there are clear methods managers can use to ensure they don’t stifle creativity, and instead give it the chance to thrive,” she said.
Dr Imber outlined five solutions to problems in workplace innovation:
  1. Ensure people feel challenged by their work
Feeling a strong sense of challenge in one’s work is a critical driver of innovation. Challenge refers to people working on tasks that are complex and interesting — yet at the same time not overly taxing or unduly overwhelming. It is important that you don’t simply think about how to give people (including yourself) the biggest possible challenge.
Instead, you should ensure that the level of challenge you set is one that is achievable. As a manager, take time to thoughtfully consider how you allocate tasks and projects to people. Ensure that you are matching these elements so that people feel a significant sense of challenge. 
  1. Stop seeing failure as a dirty word 
Within many organisations, failure is seen as an unacceptable outcome and is generally thought of as a dirty word. When it does happen, it gets swept under the carpet. But being able to acknowledge and learn from failure is a huge part of building a culture where risk-taking is tolerated and where innovation can thrive.
As a leader, think about ways you can signal that risk-taking is an acceptable part of business. Talk openly about failures and what can be learnt from them with your team.
  1. Experimentation before implementation
When thinking about how your company approaches innovation, ensure that experimentation is a mandatory step. Rather than just going straight from idea to implementation, you should first run experiments. This involves setting hypotheses as to why you believe an idea will add value to the customer and creating a minimum viable product (MVP) - the most basic version of the idea that will still allow for learnings.
You can then set up an experiment to test your hypotheses using the MVP and based on the results, iterate or change course accordingly. Experimentation is a very effective way to help reduce the risk of new innovations. 
  1. Autonomy – loosening the reigns
Many researchers have found that creativity is dramatically enhanced when people are given the freedom to decide how they do their jobs. When people feel as if they have a choice in how things can be done they are significantly more likely to engage in trial and error and, through this, find more effective ways of doing things.
 Just be sure to set clear goals, as the autonomy effect is strongest when people are clear on what you want them to achieve.
  1. Debate – and welcoming all views
One of the factors that has been identified as critical for creating a culture where innovation thrives is ensuring that different points of view are encouraged and that ideas are regularly debated.
Lead by example and encourage others to debate and discuss ideas that you bring to the table – actively encouraging different view points will strengthen your innovations significantly. In addition, avoid the temptation to recruit people who are just like you—doing so will only discourage debate and encourage homogeneity of thinking.

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