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If you ask any leader what quality they’d like their company to embody above all else, most of them would say one word: innovation.
The ability to innovate sounds simple. Be creative! Think outside the box! Take risks! But for these things to happen, people must first work in an environment that fosters innovation and risk-taking. They must feel comfortable taking the risk to think creatively and challenge the status quo. And it’s a leader’s job to make the deliberate choices that create this kind of environment.
I recently spoke with Dr. Darlene Solomon, senior vice president and CTO of Agilent Technologies, for insights on what entrepreneurs and leaders can do to create a culture that facilitates innovation. We discussed the four things leaders must do — and the one thing they absolutely must avoid.
1. Take risks for the right reason. If you are encouraging workers to take risks, it must be in the context of the potential benefit of those risks. “You can’t just talk about risk-taking alone,” Solomon says. This should also align with your company’s vision and strategy. If everyone understands the impact of their contributions, they have greater buy-in, and can see the value of their contributions, big and small.
2. Recognize and reward short and long-term risks. Leaders should recognize not only when risks are met with immediate reward, but also when people invest in longer-range projects that don’t result in immediate returns. Well before the end goal is achieved, leaders can set objectives along the path and reward contribution. Recognize teams that work in high-impact/high risk areas, and continue to emphasize your trust and appreciation for their efforts, along with the potential benefit of their work.
3. Make every voice feel heard. Leaders who create cultures of innovation and trust find a way to make sure everyone feels involved, contributes, and senses their contributions are valued. “It’s not about conforming and having everybody agree on everything,” Solomon says. In fact, everyone’s ideas won’t get the green light. But how you make those people feel about those contributions is key. “A leader is stronger by explaining why they made the decision they did,” Solomon says. Just do so in a way that’s inclusive and not divisive. For example, telling someone that a suggestion that didn’t make it actually helped the team realize and understand a greater point. The result is that person doesn’t feel rejected — they feel valued and are likely to come forward with suggestions in the future.
4. Celebrate Innovation. Agilent runs a company-wide competition every 18 months called “Agilent Innovates”; the goal is to recognize and reward innovation as a key element of Agilent’s strategy. Employees and teams from throughout the company are encouraged to submit their innovations, whether it was for a new product or solution, or for a process improvement. The innovations are judged based on their originality and business impact, with the final round of competition being ultimately judged by the company’s CEO staff, which names the President’s Award winners in each category. Not only does a program like this get everyone excited about innovation, it sends the message that the company values and celebrates creativity and risk-taking. “From the CEO to throughout the company, there’s a lot of energy,” Solomon says. “I think it shows that innovation is valued from everywhere in Agilent.”
5. Never say failure. “When a project ends, we review what we learned, what we might do differently if appropriate, or maybe how we’re going to take those learnings in a new direction.” Solomon says. One word that never comes up? Failure. “We don’t call them failures per se. It’s about, ‘what do we do next?'” This culture neutralizes the fear of failure, which can paralyze the freedom to think creatively. “I don’t think that failure is even part of our day-to-day vocabulary,” Solomon says.
Innovation is not a hard-wired, innate gift. It’s not native to a particular region or nation. It flourishes in the right kind of environment, which any leader with sincere intent can create. “Innovation is all about challenging the status quo and I believe that creative motivated people generally have great ideas and innovate well,” Solomon says. “And as leaders we need to provide the right culture and the right leadership to sustain that innovation.”