It’s the people: How to foster human innovation

When companies approach our team at Brave New Workshop Creative Outreach to work with them on their innovation programs, our first step is always to simply have a conversation to get to know them and their company’s situation.

Ever since we started speaking more than 15 years ago, we always lead with asking them to describe their current innovation program.

Even though we have posed that question countless times to thousands of different people in organizations of all sizes spanning a wide variety of industries, the answers are startlingly consistent.

They often tell us about innovation kick-offs, internal definitions, idea portals launched, research completed, chief innovation officers hired and fired, innovation champion task forces assembled… and the list goes on.

At this point, we drop our toughest question.

“So, what is your company doing to help people behave more innovatively?” After a moment of awkward silence the reply is usually the same: “What do you mean by ‘behavior’?”

Our answer is pretty straightforward.

“What we mean by behavior is, how do your organization’s people act on a daily basis? How do they typically treat each other? What does it feel like after people share their ideas? What happens if an innovation attempt fails? How do people treat each other in ideation and design sessions? What we mean is: How do people behave?”

Day-to-day behavior seems so basic that often the leaders driving innovation assume that it will automatically change after a great system is enacted. The teams that work on innovation systems can often overlook the only essential element of any successful innovation effort: the people—and all their emotions, aspirations, assumptions and unique personality quirks—who need to fuel it.

At its core, innovation is really about people.

Their assumptions and subconscious thought patterns—their mindset—and their daily actions and habits that stem from that mindset—their behavior. Mix all those with some corporate procedures, rewards and penalties, office politics, perceived social dynamics and a pinch of stress, and you get a wonderfully messy and complex environment. If you fail to address daily behavior, even the greatest strategies and plans to drive innovation are doomed.

If we don’t create innovation systems that are rooted in a thorough understanding of the human interaction they’re supposed to support, they can actually deter the experience we want to create for our customers.

Here are three pieces of advice to make sure you keep people at the forefront of your innovation initiatives:

Tip 1: Cultivate an open mindset

The best method we’ve found for encouraging innovation in our team isn’t a system at all, but rather a mindset. Specifically, an open mindset.

An open mindset works counter to a closed mindset — driven by a fear of failure, judgment or conflict. We often don’t even realize when we’re headed down a spiral of negative thoughts.

You have the power to transform the negative emotions associated with the fear of failure into a productive drive and an excitement to discover, allowing you to perform to the best of your abilities.

An open mindset is a choice to not spend a disproportionate amount of time or energy on fear and to live a life of engagement, authenticity and forward-looking action.

The proper mindset allows us to use the skills that we have developed and the tools that we are afforded in the specific ways we need them to accomplish tasks. The tool sets and skill sets are only part of the puzzle. It’s that third leg of the stool—mindset—that’s essential. Mindset is the most effective and all-encompassing way that we’ve found to position ourselves for innovation success.

Tip 2: Postpone judgment

Innovation works best when many diverse points of view have a chance to mingle. For the magic of diversity to work, employees have to practice deferring judgment about different and perhaps opposing points of view so that they can collaborate effectively.

The energy that we all have experienced when teams are innovating well comes from and is fueled by the lack of judgment in the first part of the process. This sets the stage for team trust and going places we would not have been able to go on our own.

Put some space between the moment that the new information comes your way and the beginning of the judgment process.

During that time and in that space, judgment limits possibility and potential, while postponing judgment multiplies possibility and potential.

Of course, in order to refine, analyze and make great decisions, you do need to have a healthy dose of judgment. You must evaluate and understand what things won’t work as you implement innovative ideas.

However, all of that necessary judgment should come later in the innovation process, after we have had a chance (even a brief one) to consider the potential of the idea, circumstance or opinions we encounter.

When we are in the right mindset, the space we create by postponing judgment is most often filled with a forward-moving and often positive addition, or improving upon the idea that was just introduced. When we postpone judgment, we create the space that’s needed to allow the next part of innovation to happen.

Tip 3: Live the words

In an effective innovation environment, actions, not simply words, drive the results. It’s not enough to just talk the talk; we also have to walk the walk.

At times it can feel safest to stay in information-collection mode, but the truth is we always feel better once we begin. The ideas start to flow, we get a clear understanding of what we need to do and we’re less frozen.

Be the first on your team to embrace a few powerful assumptions, including:

  • Mistakes are a great source of inspiration and learning.
  • Change is a positive—not an obstacle.
  • Ideas and honest opinions have value that we should celebrate, not judge.
  • We all have the power to create change and impact those around us.
  • We don’t need all the information just to begin.

Being human, real and authentic encourages participation in innovation activities and initiatives.

Your presence at, support of and engagement with all things innovation-related at your company sends the message that innovation is important and worthwhile of your time, which means it is important and worthwhile for others.

For an exercise in walking the walk, be the first one to share a new idea at a meeting when the leader asks, “Who wants to go first?” Your willingness to dive in without fear will inspire those around you.

Focusing on helping your people—including yourself—embrace an open mindset will help them (and you) behave consistently through highs and lows, to recognize possibilities and to move forward into the unknown without the fear of their ideas being judged.

Contact: John Sweeney is co-owner and executive producer and Elena Imaretska is vice president of Brave New Workshop in Minneapolis:

sweeney@bravenewworkshop.com; www.bravenewworkshop.com

John Sweeney

Co-owner & Executive Producer



Elena Imaretska

Vice President
Brave New Workshop