When we think of innovation, people like Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Steve Jobs tend to come to mind. The lone hero in solitude has a hold on our imagination, but the truth is that innovation is rarely the result of an inspired genius toiling away in a garage.
Groundbreaking innovation takes lots of people. Consider that more than 1,000 engineers worked on the first iPhone. More than 7,000 people worked on Curiosity (the rover on Mars). The takeaway? Innovation is a team sport.
Innovation doesn’t have to be splashy either. Call it micro-innovating. In fact, small and incremental changes can have an oversized impact on your work life. When to innovate? Anytime you feel your work isn’t serving the greater good. Micro-innovation can be extraordinarily powerful.
So how best to micro-innovate? Let’s take a closer look at what gets in the way of doing it and how you can harness your power.
Micro-Innovation Killer #1: To-Do Lists, Tunnel Vision, No Vision
A typical day: Most of us create a to-do list and strike items as we finish them. I know I personally feel a sense of completion and satisfaction when I click my task off my calendar. To-do items can become so ingrained in our routine. At its worst, checking off items becomes mindless, and we don’t even think about it. When that happens, our to-do lists have more meaning than the tasks themselves. Over time, the work loses significance, and we question why we do the things we do in the first place. Our perspective narrows and our thinking becomes siloed.
Purpose? Process improvement? Innovation? Forget about them because we’re so focused on completing a task—even if the task no longer serves a need. It’s easy to have tunnel vision and wear self-created blinders. And to be fair, we must make so many decisions in our personal life, it’s easy to turn it off at work. But, when our work is filled with tasks, we lose sight of our larger goals.
Micro-Innovation Killer #2: Fear Kills Creativity
Recently, I was speaking to one of my peers, a manager of individual contributors. She manages the leadership development at a large company and was making some updates to a program. She had asked one of her people for their honest opinion, wondering what they might change and how they might improve it. She loved the suggestions and wondered why the person didn’t share these great ideas sooner. The answer was disarming. The individual assumed that the choices were made for a reason and who was she to question those choices. She did not feel empowered to share her fresh perspective; there was no psychologically safe space to share her opinions.
How many people remain silent because of a fear? The majority. In fact, McKinsey found that just 26% of leaders create psychological safety for their teams. Where there is fear, there is little innovation.
Five Tips for Micro-Innovating
Innovation is one of those words that can be intimidating. But it’s inherent in our nature—or else we’d still be living as hunter-gatherers. We are attempting to improve our lives every day and innovate in the smallest ways. Whether it’s preparing meals on a Sunday before a busy work week, optimizing schedules with a planner app, using Microsoft Teams or Slack instead of email, we are always trying to improve our status quo.
Here are five tips to ignite your creative spark and start micro-innovating.
1. Give others permission to speak: Those ubiquitous “If you see something, say something” signs in the airport are relevant for innovating. A leader’s job is to make sure their people feel safe to say, “This task doesn’t feel helpful to what we are trying to achieve. I’d like to understand more about the importance of the task to the overall process—what do you see that perhaps I’m missing?”
Don’t expect your people to have an answer at the ready—and be clear that it’s okay they don’t have one. Pointing to areas of improvement is NOT complaining! They may not know how to fix the situation, but they have at least diagnosed that something needs improvement. They have ‘seen something and said something.’ And that can short-circuit a potential problem before it becomes a monumental one.
2. Ensure systems exist for people: Processes are supposed to streamline tasks, but often they become workplace handcuffs. When a process creates unnecessary administration or you get hints of malicious compliance, it’s time to rethink the process and suggest ways to streamline. Ask yourself these questions: “What are we trying to solve with this process? Are these actions having the desired impact on the experience we want to achieve? Does the system support us and the customer or slow us down?”
3. Always be learning: Innovation requires experimentation. This also means the willingness to fail. We learn through mistakes, bumps in the road, misalignments. It’s where we improve how we work together and how we meet the needs of our customers/business. The words of Thomas Edison, on the painstaking task of inventing the lightbulb, are a good reminder: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
You can speed innovation by having a learning mindset. Ask your people: “What do you see that I’m missing?” Then remember the iPhone and how it was an iterative invention driven by thousands of people. It takes time and patience. So be easy with your people and yourself.
4. Adopt the right mindset: Throw away your preconceived notions about innovation and focus on fostering a culture of innovation for yourself and your team. Be mindful of your emotional reactions and others by pausing before you respond. Be curious and open-minded and you will bring in multiple perspectives. Have courage to push through your fear of failure. Be resilient to overcome challenges you will face while converging and diverging along the innovation process.
5. Take needed downtime: Ever take a shower and a great idea comes while you’re shampooing your hair? Ever wake up in the middle of the night with a “eureka” moment? The brain needs downtime. When it gets a break, it can make new connections and serve up inspirations. So instead of relentlessly hammering away at the task, take a purposeful break. See what brilliant ideas spontaneously arise.
Micro-innovation is something for the ambitious and courageous. It requires the willingness to be wrong; to fail; to be resilient. All this can be humbling. And it likely will undermine your self-confidence at times. But what’s the alternative? Doing the same old thing over and over—even if it’s no longer useful.
Ready to rally your self-confidence, resilience, and fearlessness to create a small revolution?