By Reta Coburn 

In today’s business environment, you would be hard pressed not to find some reference to innovation in an organization’s strategic plan or a leader’s annual objectives. Innovation comes in many shapes and sizes, from improving existing products and services, to complete transformations, to launching something that has never been done before.  Many innovations are invisible to your end customer, such as internal process improvements or automation that delivers your products or services more effectively, still others are ground-breaking changes that dramatically impact your customer’s experience.

But why the focus on innovation, really? It’s quite simple – innovation is crucial to sustaining your organization’s competitive advantage. That differentiation in your market is what attracts new customers to you. It is instrumental in retaining your existing customers and drives financial results.

In our roles as leaders, we have an opportunity to facilitate innovative thinking within our teams and foster a culture that values and supports ideation with some simple leadership strategies, competency development, and coaching.

Teams who have a foundation of trust – where they can explore ideas, experiment with initiatives, and share opinions without the worry of being harshly judged or being deemed a failure – will gravitate toward innovating. They feel safe and supported taking well-reasoned risks in pursuing new paths and concepts. However, for teams who have not been actively engaging in continuous improvement or innovative initiatives, leaders may find it helpful to set the stage with a discussion about ‘what works well’ and ‘even better if,’ or mapping out principles that the team agrees are important to creating a trusting environment. Leading brainstorming or problem-solving discussions with those principles in mind, and coaching team members to develop behaviors that build trust (and discontinue those that erode it) are good starting points.

One area that may impact how some team members trust is the uncertainty that change brings.  Becoming comfortable and even confident with uncertainty will shape how they approach and experience change. Leaders can help team members understand their emotions and can coach them on how to maintain their effectiveness during challenging situations. This helps team members develop competency in adaptability and resilience.

Underpinning trust with a defined purpose unites team members and aligns them with a common focus. A purpose eliminates ambiguity and provides team members with clarity on why their work is important. It gives them a lens through which to evaluate decisions, solve problems, and assess team effectiveness. It also acts as a valuable guide to prioritize initiatives, moving up those that are high impact in serving the purpose and saying no to those that aren’t. From an innovation perspective, a purpose can also keep teams grounded. Leaders know the reality of having limited people and budget resources, so purpose as a lens can empower team members in their evaluation of which innovations (and to what degree) to prioritize and take risks on.

High performing teams that are achievement-oriented will look for ways to improve products and services, and the ways they are delivered. These teams will strive to meet and exceed the standard of excellence in their day-to-day work and establish challenging goals, continuously looking for ways to do things better. Collaboratively building simple but specific metrics and targets for your team’s deliverables and introducing a weekly review of the results enhances accountability and is an opportunity to recognize and celebrate successes. It also provides the opportunity to discuss progress on individual commitments on initiatives and focuses your team on those things that move the needle. High performing teams with a positive outlook will be persistent in pursuing objectives despite roadblocks and will see the positive in situations and individuals, rather than letting those be derailers. As leaders, our presence and behavior set the tone for positivity. Then, the expectations we set, how we coach team members, and the individuals we hire and retain are supporting strategies.

As with most aspects of leadership, none of these are ‘set it and forget it’ processes, but rather they require intentionality to optimally guide and support your team as they engage in innovative thinking, experimentation, and delving into innovative initiatives. Ultimately, by fostering innovation, you maintain your competitive advantage and increase your organizational success.