How to Inspire Better Team Innovation and Problem Solving
It’s tragic when your attempt to protect your team members actually sabotages team innovation. If you really want a courageous culture, that means you go first. Your team is watching both what you do AND what you say. Psychological safety matters.
She Wasn’t TRYING to Sabotage Team Innovation
Back in my Fortune 10 job, I sat in an executive meeting with my peers when “Lori” (my boss) explained that “Bob,” a junior-level executive (also in the room) had “gotten away” with challenging her boss, “Joanne” with a new idea.
When Bob started to challenge her and share his idea, I was really afraid for his career, but Joanne (the executive with the big title) actually seemed okay with it.
She laughed as she said how lucky he was that he wasn’t fired, and how other people hadn’t faired so well in the past. Everyone else laughed along uncomfortably.
Bob didn’t smile.
Many Years Later…
Many years later, I’m still wondering exactly WHY she said that. Did she realize how her clumsy attempt at humor would sabotage team innovation and stifle good ideas?
I’m pretty sure it was an attempt to portray her boss as more reasonable than her reputation allowed.
But nothing in her commentary was a “How can we speak up more effectively?” conversation.
Lori had a reputation as a groomer of executive talent. We respected her point of view. We all took her comments as a warning story rather than a “see YOU CAN bring up ideas” story.
This ad-hoc leadership story reinforced that an executive really listening to someone a few levels below was not the norm.
Her unspoken message to all of us was to “play it safe.” Don’t speak up. Don’t challenge those above.
What if instead, she had said this:
Bob had a remarkable idea the other day and he did such a good job advocating for his position to Joanne. I know that took courage, Bob, because we don’t always do that well around here and that’s a shame.
Great job. She loved it. We need more of this!
I know you have great ideas and I want to be known as a team that thinks strategically and critically about the business.
If you have ideas you want to share, I’m here to support you.
In our Courageous Cultures research, 40% of the respondents said that they “lack the confidence” to share their ideas. And as we dug underneath the numbers through interviews with managers around the world, we consistently heard about managers “coaching” their employees to play it safe.
This means that even if you really do want people to share ideas, and are open to being challenged respectfully—there might be a manager below you “protecting their team” and encouraging them to hold back.
And, it also means that an off-handed comment you make to protect your team from unwanted executive exposure could actually sabotage innovation.
Don’t Inadvertently Sabotage Team Innovation: Try this Instead
1. Prepare the ground for discussion.
Talk to your manager and ask for opportunities to share new ideas. You can try something like this.
I’m so committed to the work we are doing, particularly the ________ (insert strategy or project here). I’ve been encouraging my team to be consistently on the look out for how we can improve and do things more effeciently and create a better experience for our customers. I’d love to give them some opportunites for exposure and to share their ideas with you from time to time. Would you be open to that?
2. Create clarity.
This next step is critical, particularly if you’re working in a culture where speaking up is not the norm.
Be really clear about two things: (1) that you really want people’s ideas; and (2) provide some clarity about what kinds of ideas
would be most helpful.
If you are a manager of managers, that means being really clear with them that you want to hear from their teams too.
And also important, be sure everyone on your team understands your strategic priorities so they can bring you better ideas.
3. Help your team vet their ideas.
Help your team lift up better ideas by teaching them what a great idea looks like. And then, even when an organic opportunity emerges to share an idea, they can quickly use this framework to position their idea so it will be more likely to be heard.
The Let’s Grow Leaders I.D.E.A. Model
This is where you get your team to think about (and be prepared to position) their ideas in terms of how they are strategically aligned with your priorities.
Ask them to consider why the person they are pitching it to would find it interesting.
What strategic problem does it solve?
How will results improve from this idea (e.g. customer experience, employee retention, efficiency)?
Particularly now, with everything that is going on, even the best ideas can feel overwhelming. Help your team consider if this is something that they could actually do right now, and why. If the idea is easy-to-implement have them explain why in terms the executive will understand.
This is where you help your team think about stakeholders and who else might need to be involved. Who would we need to engage to make this happen? Why should they support it? Where are we most likely to meet resistance?
What are the most important actions needed to try this? How would we start? Bonus points if you can assign some of these first key actions to yourself.
4. Recognize and celebrate the sharing.
When your team member does speak up and share their ideas (even if they aren’t being used), respond with regard (read more about that here) and then celebrate publicly (like the re-write scenario) from above. The more people see their peers speaking up, sharing ideas, and not just surviving, but thriving, the more they will be willing to give it a try.
Get a FREE Download of the first few chapters of Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers and Customer Advocates here.
Learn more about our research on Psychological Safety and Courage at Work
See Also: How to Be a More Courageous Manager