Lead with Learning: 5 Ways to Increase Your Workplace Innovation

How can you spur innovation? Recently, I attended an internal workshop on strategy and growth, and my workgroup was asked to tackle this very question. We quickly came to the conclusion that innovation and learning are closely aligned; that is, creating the condition for innovation requires creating a "learning culture," or a culture in which new ideas and fresh thinking are welcome. 

Needless to say, creating a learning culture is easier said than done. Given the pace of today's workplace, it's easy for everyone, from the CEO to front-line workers, to get lost in the details as they move from one fire to the next. Likewise, learning and innovation often don't get the focus they need--sometimes, we barely even have time for lunch! So how can we encourage learing and innovation at our companies?

My work group came up with the following five steps: 

1. Create a shared vision 

Every day we are inundated with information and knowledge. As a population, we consume knowledge at an unprecedented rate, creating more than 30 trillion unique URLs performing ~3.3billion Google searches a day. With all of the information available, it can sometimes be hard to sort through the clutter. Without a focused goal, our efforts can be misdirected. 

An effective vision is a clear, common vision that creates an identity and a direction for the company without being prescriptive. For companies, establishing an effective vision helps employees focus on what the company cares about most. This shapes company culture and can drive the most impactful and innovative solutions. 

2. Introduce new ideas and points of view 

Nothing sparks innovation and defeats groupthink more than looking at an old problem through a new lens. When solving problems, too often, we come back to the same tired, company-standard solutions and become constrained. To overcome this tendency, we need to make an effort to expose our teams to new people and ideas from outside our organization. Consultants, friends, academics, and especially customers can all be great sources of inspiration. Ask them to share the story of a particularly difficult problem they solved, and you'll likely find an insight that you can apply to your own challenges. 

Ever heard of Innocentive®? It is a website that uses crowdsourcing and incentives to solve challenges. It's rather ingenious. Perhaps, you could develop a similar website within your company. Offer incentives and make it fun for employees to participate in solving challenges and improving processes. You may be surprised who has some innovation chops. The employee with the best ideas may surprise you. 

3. Make it safe to experiment and fail 

The May 2014 issue of Fast Company features an inside look at GoogleX, Google's innovation lab. In the article, lab director Astro Teller discusses Google X's failure-accepting culture as one of the keys to the lab's success. While most of us don't work at Google, much less an innovation lab, it is important to create a culture that accepts failure. Or dare I say it, embraces failure? Of course, we all want to be successful. But without failure, how can we learn and develop? Think of all the CEO's that founded start-ups that failed. It took them maybe 2-3, sometimes many more tries to get it right. 

Companies grow from experimentation and risk-taking, and sometimes, those ideas fail. If those failures are criticized and disparaged, other employees might hesitate bfore trying the next great idea. Next time one of your employees or teams falters, encourage their effort, and you may just inspire the next great idea. 

4. Connect people with similar passions and goals 

If you're passionate about something, nothing fuels that passion more than connecting with like-minded people. Create a community of practice. The collective energy, excitement, and ambition from a group with shared passion can be the difference between overcoming a difficult challenge and throwing in the towel. Company Command (Dixon et. Al, 2005) tells the story of how the army launched communites of practice and the value they have seen from knowledge sharing. 

Building your own community of practice is easier now than ever before thanks to social media. You can easily connect with individuals through LinkedIn groups or attend Meetup events in your area. 

5. Make time for people to think 

According to the McKinsey Global Institute, the average person spends 28% (13 hours) of their workweek reading, deleting, sorting, or sending email. Indeed, the scarcest resource at companies today is time. To address this, some companies go as far as earmarking 10% to 20% of employee time as "free time," but that's not realistic for most of us. So what can we do? Be explicit and tell employees that it's ok to disappear for an hour or twoto go think at the Starbucks or on top of the hill down the street from the office. Provide incentives and give employees the opportunity to share their ideas in a fun "showcase." Make it a meaningful experience for them and the company as a whole. 

How would you describe your company's learning culture? What are some ways your spur innovation within your company? 

Download our most recent free resource - 2014 Learning Insights Report.