Don’t Wait for Marching Orders--Be an Innovator

If you need a reminder of what innovation can do for your business—look no further than Apple. The software giant is on fire, all ablaze from record sales of the new iPhone 5. Forecasts project sales of 10 million of the new, sleek, smartphones by the end of the month. Innovation from the Apple crew keeps boosting customer appetite and market performance.

Much sought by businesses—big and small, innovation powers success. But the truth is, a lot of companies lack the workplace environment to inspire it. Instead of finding new and better ways to work, employees watch as spectators and wait for marching orders. No wonder 63% of U.S. workers are not fully engaged on the job, according to recent research.

Does your company have a culture where people expect to be told what to do? Or does the culture encourage employees to think on their own? Here are five ways to find out:

Ask about expectations. Seize the opportunity of an upcoming management meeting or employee event to find out what people are in search of. Ask the question: What is one outcome that would make this meeting worthwhile for you? Evaluate the content and tone of responses. Are people looking to take action—by networking with colleagues from another department, exchanging ideas, sharing best practices, contributing information? Or are they looking to take direction—by asking for a detailed plan, requesting specific direction? Is their choice of words upbeat and optimistic or negative and critical? In our work with a health-care client, the words “marching orders” were repeatedly aired in the advance feedback. The data raised a red flag to company leaders that the managers they needed to step up with initiative in implementing strategic programs were more resigned to wait for formal directives from the C-suite.

Get comfortable with spontaneity and informality. Are hefty PowerPoint presentations a meeting staple where you work? It’s a common occurrence in many companies. Why? Formal presentations bring a high predictability in the content, since it’s predetermined and, most likely, reviewed several times over before making its way to the small screen of your meeting. Real-time conversation—and by that I mean spontaneous, topical dialogue—lacks the formality and predictability of presentations. Posing an open-ended question out for group discussion opens the door to uncertainty. You really can’t predict or know for sure what will be said. Unscripted territory vs. the scripted turf of a meticulously crafted slide deck. Get comfortable with fewer prepared presentations and more probing questions that can stimulate real-time exchanges of ideas and insights.

Put leaders in listen mode. Start with some coaching sessions on how to behave in a way that demonstrates interest. Listening takes training. The basics of tuning in others can be covered in a 15-minute tutorial, and then reinforced on a periodic basis. Offer tips and techniques for disconnecting from your smartphone, making eye contact, asking questions, formulating conversation takeaways, and creating a comfortable environment for getting others to speak up. Employee ideas will flow when a manager looks, sounds and acts interested.

Do things differently. Change the design of things. Working with a client in the health-care industry, we recently overhauled the format and flow of a company management conference. The day-long session was redesigned from a passive to active experience for its nearly 150 participants. Interactive table exercises replaced one-way presentations. The classroom-style seating arrangement of past meetings—which historically sequestered (and distanced) executives in the front row—was busted up as well, replaced by round tables of ten participants from different levels, locations and departments. Strangers became colleagues, and idea swapping became standard fare. The differences were readily noticed and generated rave reviews, like: “It was the best interactive meeting we’ve ever had,” “I saw the entire leadership team united in problem solving and ideas for solutions,” “I felt more connection to others I don’t normally interact with,” “I felt part of a great innovative organization.”

Take the mystery out of change.  Uncertainty has a paralyzing effect. It often causes employees to play it safe by sticking to routine. You can measure whether your employees are change-averse or receptive by asking questions such as: Why do we do things this way? Why do we handle inventory this way? Answer the phone this way? Return calls to customers this way?  If “that’s the way we’ve always done it” is the most frequently received answer, then you've got to do some climate-setting to increase employees’ comfort with change. In an exercise that I conducted recently at a small company, employees were asked to identify a company—big or small—that they enjoyed doing business with. They also provided one reason for their loyalty. Activating a discussion around the winning practices of favorite companies opened the door to examining similar practices within their own company and flagging a few for improvement. The employees could draw on the outside winning practices and use them to stimulate new ideas. Now that’s how innovation gets going. Apple anyone?

Linda Dulye is internationally recognized for helping many companies go spectator free. A former communications leader for GE and Allied Signal, Linda established Dulye & Co. in 1998 with a practical, process-driven approach for improving communications and collaboration through an engaged workforce—a formidable competitive advantage, that she calls a Spectator-Free Workplace™.