A Few Magic Words That Can Help to Create a Culture of Innovation

As I’ve explained elsewhere, one of the most crucial roles in creating your organization’s innovation engine and keeping it running effectively is played by middle managers. Front line employees are often the best source of a continuing stream of innovative ideas, because they tend to be close to customers and to the products or services your company offers. C-suite leaders have the responsibility for “giving permission” to innovate and for shaping an incentive system that rewards risk-taking and fresh thinking. But middle managers are just as important in stimulating innovation as these two groups. They help to spread the language of innovating, coach workers in the processes of innovating, and make connections across departments and divisions that help to drive the tasks of refining and implementing powerful innovative concepts.  

In addition, middle managers play a vital role in encouraging a culture of innovation. Yes, C-suite leaders must foster the creation of such a culture through their words and actions. But middle managers help make the innovating culture real for all employees. When the CEO makes fine speeches about innovating, but middle managers behave in ways that communicate the message, “Our real work is execution, and that’s what we should be focused on,” front line employees will follow the signals their middle managers are sending.  

In many cases, middle managers send signals that discourage innovating without realizing they are doing so. It’s easy for them to overlook or forget some basic facts of organizational life. For most front line employees, trying to innovate is inherently risky. Taking even a small amount of time and energy away from the daily tasks of execution may be perceived as inefficient and wasteful. And speaking up to offer an innovative idea that runs counter to the organization’s traditional ways of thinking and acting is likely to spark resistance—perhaps in form of criticism, scolding, or mockery. Given these realities, many front line employees who have an innovative idea are tempted to take the safe, easy route by simply remaining silent.  

Middle managers must take deliberate, proactive steps to combat this all-too-common syndrome. If you run a small team, a department, or a division, you don’t have the power to transform your organization’s culture. But you can make small, subtle changes that encourage the emergence of an innovative culture within your work group, thereby stimulating the flow of fresh ideas.  

Some years ago, I worked with Naoji Iwashita of Recruit, a very innovative Japanese company (he appears on the left in the photo above). Naoji was able to enhance the innovative culture of his team simply by developing the habit of saying “Thank you” whenever a team member offered an innovative idea. It didn’t matter whether the idea was a great one, a good one, or not very good at all. Naoji responded with “Thank you” to show his appreciation for the employee’s willingness to take the risk of offering a new idea, and to encourage others to do the same.  

Naoji also made it easier for team members to begin innovating by demonstrating two simple questions they could use to evaluate their new ideas. First, will this idea increase the value we create for customers, thereby increasing their willingness to pay for the product or service? (Sometimes this question is hard for an employee to answer on their own—in which case, the manager would say, “Go and ask a customer.”)  

Second, will this idea create value for us? That is, will it increase our profits, reduce our costs, save us time, or produce some other concrete benefit for our organization? 

Answering these two questions is a simple yet powerful way to start the process of evaluating and developing a potentially innovative idea.  

Naoji demonstrated this process just by asking the two questions whenever an employee came to him with an idea. Little by little, every member of the team got into the habit of asking these questions themselves.  

As you can see, it doesn’t take a lot for a middle manager to begin creating a culture of innovation within their team. The simple phrase “Thank you” and those two value-testing questions can go a long way toward creating a shared mindset that can turn your corner of the organization into a powerful innovating engine. 


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