9 Ways to Ignite Innovation Inside Your Company

If you’re going to survive this season of turmoil, you must innovate your way out of it. Here are some tips that can have your whole company lighting up the economic darkness with one bright idea after another.

The recession is in full swing, and companies everywhere are feeling the pain. Yours is likely no exception. Shrinking budgets, sweeping layoffs, and a smothering malaise that’s settled over your workforce make it hard to see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. Sometimes, even the most optimistic leader finds him or herself wondering, Is there an end to this particular tunnel? Sure there is, but you’re going to have to excavate it yourself–and you’re going to have to light your own way.

Innovation is the only ticket out of this recession. I believe this is true for America as a whole and it’s certainly true for the individual organizations that make up our nation.

I’m not just talking about product development. I’m talking about new services, business processes, means of communication, and methods of collaboration. Companies that can churn out innovative ideas–good, workable innovative ideas–will be able to adapt to the new realities we face. Those that can’t, won’t.

The heart of innovation, of course, is people working together eagerly, intelligently, and productively. When this synergy happens, ideas pour forth like water from a newly tapped underground spring–or like fireflies showing up en masse at dusk. Innovation is all about good teamwork. It’s really that simple. And it’s what The Firefly Effect is all about.

If you’re like many leaders, you have a group of shell-shocked lay-off “survivors” who are wandering around lost in a state of general worry and angst about the economy. You can use innovation principles to direct their anxious energy toward solving critical problems for the company. It helps them; it helps you; it helps everyone.

So how can you deliberately create a more innovative culture–call it “Operation Firefly”–at your company? Here are some tips to help you get started:

• Understand the (non-flashy) new role of leadership. In America as well as in the rest of the world, the focus is moving toward such “right-brained” skills and talents as creativity, empathy, intuition, and the ability to link seemingly unrelated objects and events into something new and different. That means leaders must a) create and maintain a safe, respectful environment where individual creativity can emerge to its fullest potential, and b) focus that creative energy in the right direction based upon the core purpose of the team and the targeted goals.

If you’re a “command and control” type, you’d better start rethinking your style. Today, successful leaders aren’t flashy and aggressive. They lead through inspiration and collaboration. Look at your current behaviors and determine which are helping you achieve your vision for leadership through engagement and which are holding you back. Start small–and stick with it.

• Search for untapped talent on your team. Frankly, it is in our individual and corporate nature to try to deal with differences by eliminating them. However, in the same way that what look like plain old fireflies are actually comprised of more than 2,000 known species, employees are far more complex and unique than they might appear at first glance. Unearthing the hidden talents your employees possess–I recommend the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument, which I discovered during my job as organization effectiveness manager for Coca-Cola–is the first step toward using these areas of hidden development to your team’s advantage.

Employees who are recognized as unique, and who are seen as having significant contributions to make, become more engaged and passionate about their work. They light up to far brighter levels than ever before. Look for the hidden strengths and untapped potential of your existing employees and you’ll see them transform before your eyes. It’s almost like hiring a team of new creative superstars.

• Encourage creative abrasion…but swat ferocious fireflies. Are you uncomfortable with conflict in the workplace? Don’t be. Conflict is natural, expected, and, because it’s a sign of diverse thinking on your team, even desirable. I call productive conflict “creative abrasion.” However, leaders must take steps to keep the conflict focused on the issues and not let team members direct their ire at one another personally. And you must deal with ferocious fireflies: toxic, manipulative employees who gain the trust of others on the team only to viciously turn on them later.

In the world of fireflies, there is one species in which the female is called the femme fatale. She mimics the welcoming signal of another species to gain their trust. Then, when the victim is close enough, she pounces on it and consumes it. And yes, there is a human equivalent of the ferocious firefly. If you have one on your team, you must eliminate him or her immediately. Otherwise, it will be impossible to build a culture of trust.

• Deal with other, more insidious “trust busters,” too. In all my years of working with teams, I consistently see (besides the presence of a ferocious firefly) three other problematic behaviors that damage or limit trust. They are: 1) a refusal to share personal information; 2) sarcasm disguised as humor; and 3) one or more disengaged members of the team.

In order to innovate, people must be able to connect with each other in a real, deeply personal way. If just one person refuses to open up or truly engage, or if he throws barbs at other team members under the guise of humor, he’ll cause an erosion of trust. And in the absence of trust, no real progress can be made.

• Make sure quieter fireflies have a chance to glow. You’ve no doubt noticed that certain people naturally dominate the discussion while others tend to hang back and go with the flow. Problem is, if your big talkers and “star employees” are always allowed to verbally run over the quieter/less visible members of your team, the same ideas and solutions will always get implemented. Some simple tricks can prevent extroverts from taking over and introverts (who may have some brilliant ideas under their hats) from getting overlooked.

Insist that everyone jot down their initial ideas in silence and then share them, round-robin style. Impose a time limit so that no one is able to out-talk her quieter teammates. Sometimes, simply moving a predictably dominant person away from the front of the room and parking her next to a more reserved team member can change group dynamics dramatically.

• Don’t let team leaders keep too tight a lid on the jar. Just as fireflies’ lights fade when they’re held captive, a leader who dominates and controls his or her team will squelch creativity. If you’re the leader, you must take deliberate steps not to do this. For instance, don’t sit at the head of the table. Use positive reinforcement (both verbally and nonverbally). Don’t get into a prolonged conversation with only one or two other team members. If you’re not very, very careful, you’ll end up biasing the people in the room by virtue of your position of power.

People have a natural tendency to defer to the leader, even when he or she is trying very hard not to be dominating. You have to watch everything: tone of voice, body language, facial expressions… everything.

• Make meetings fun, exciting, and inviting. For instance, you might bring a creativity toy or two–something interesting enough to engage someone’s hands but not so fascinating that it distracts them from the reason for the meeting. Use a whiteboard rather than the dreaded flipchart. And try techniques like mind-mapping (for left-brain thinkers) or brain-writing (for right-brain thinkers) to get creativity flowing.

Boredom and drudgery do not facilitate innovation and problem solving. That’s why it’s so important to make sure you’re holding light, fun, engaging meetings that people actually want to attend. If they don’t want to be there, they won’t be in the right frame of mind to accomplish anything worthwhile–and they won’t.

• Shine the light of accountability on your team. Even the most energetic, productive meeting means nothing if people don’t follow up the decisions they reach with action. As a team, create a common picture of what personal accountability looks like. Then, delegate very specific assignments to very specific people. Finally, set a date for a follow-up meeting in which everyone must report on whether they fulfilled their commitments, and if not, why not.

Uncomfortable as this may feel at first, it shows everyone that lame excuses won’t be tolerated. This applies to the leader as well.

• From time to time, escape the office for a creative excursion. When you really need to tap into your team’s creative talents and boost their ability to work together, you need to get offsite. Yes, even in–in fact, especially in–these stressful times. And no, I’m not talking about the stereotypical ropes course or fall-backwards-into-a-teammate’s-arms trust building exercise. I mean excursions that truly create lifelong lessons and connections you can immediately apply to improve your performance as a team and a business unit.

I’ve been privy to off-site team building exercises in many different settings, from a visit to the zoo to a tour of a plane manufacturing plant to a wintertime yacht sailing excursion. They’ve all been incredibly fruitful. These adult “field trips” yield fresh insights on teamwork and help you think about problem solving in a new way. And they also help you see others on your team in a new light.

After reading this advice, you may be thinking, Okay, all this talk of toys and trips to the zoo is fine for other companies or maybe other departments, but certainly not for my team. We’re struggling to stay alive. We just don’t have time for innovation.

You’re absolutely wrong.

Innovation is everyone’s job now. It’s no longer the purview of R&D or marketing. That no longer makes good business sense.

You must make time for innovation. At the very least you can devote one hour of team time a week to a truly innovative brainstorming session. Even if you don’t see immediately usable outcomes, there is unmistakable value in keeping people engaged in the excitement of their work. All it takes is for one person to have a bright idea and pass it on to others–like the spark of a firefly that magically illuminates a dark night.

About the Author:
Kimberly Douglas, SPHR, is president of FireFly Facilitation, Inc., a firm specializing in the design and facilitation of high-impact initiatives, including leadership team effectiveness and strategic planning. She has facilitated results for over 25 years in a broad cross-section of industries and organizations, including Coca-Cola, AT&T, Home Depot, UPS, and the U.S. Marine Corps.

Kimberly holds a master of science in industrial/organizational psychology. Prior to founding FireFly ten years ago, Kimberly was an organization effectiveness manager for Coca-Cola, a director with the Hay Group, and served in HR leadership roles in the healthcare, telecommunications, and hospitality industries. Her book, The Firefly Effect, was published by Wiley in April 2009.

She was the 2003 president of SHRM-Atlanta and has just been re-elected to the board in 2009. Kimberly gives back to her community through pro bono work with such organizations as the Partnership Against Domestic Violence, The Westminster Schools, and the Georgia Center for Nonprofits.

About the Book:

The Firefly Effect: Build Teams That Capture Creativity and Catapult Results (Wiley, 2009, ISBN: 978-0-470-43832-9, $24.95) is available at bookstores nationwide, major online booksellers, or directly from the publisher by calling 800-225-5945. In Canada, call 800-567-4797.

For more information, please visit www.FireFlyFacilitation.com

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