recognising world-class ideas even when they don’t work out

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Once upon a time two young men had an idea. In a tourist market dominated by global hotel chains, travel operators, property rental companies and estate agents, they decided to launch a property company, without buying any property; an accommodation provider that did not own any accommodation. Hoteliers the world over would have probably raised their eyebrows and thought it would never work.

This company–which still owns no property–grew to become Airbnb, and the founders Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia (who came up with the idea at a design conference) now run a multi-national business. By enabling anyone with property to rent their home to short term occupancy through Airbnb technology, Chesky and Gebbia created the world’s largest accommodation provider in less than seven years. Airbnb is thought to be worth $20 billion.

What if Chesky and Gebbia feared failure and decided not to pioneer Airbnb? How many world class ideas are lost each year in corporate inboxes because people employed by the companies in which you might work, believed their innovations would be laughed at–or worse?  The most innovative organisations are those that have rocked their marketplaces because they created offerings that their competitors thought would never work. And the most successful innovators have tried and failed many times before they’ve struck gold.

According to the business advisory company AT Kearney, innovation can be learned and embedded into the culture of the organisation. AT Kearney finds that these innovative companies share a number of virtues: transparency and sharing ideas; great communication channels; empowerment of staff at all levels to come up with ideas; great knowledge of their marketplace; and a long term, durable view. Sustainable innovation is about knowing yourself as a business; knowing what you want to achieve and being sure about how you can make a difference in the world.

But how can we as business leaders ensure that engagement and recognition are enabling this culture of innovation to thrive?

The secret to enabling innovation is about how leaders treat their teams and how colleagues treat each other.

It means creating an environment where challenge is the norm, where innovation is actively encouraged and the default option is to ask, not tell. For instance, in some organisations people are financially incentivised for coming up with innovative ideas. But if they were fundamentally engaged, they would be more likely to collaborate with colleagues, have innovative people around them and be enabled to innovate. This enablement is a key driver of both engagement and innovation.

There are people who have spent 10 years or more in corporations, where they are given incentives linked to incremental targets. They can see gaps and problems in the market that they are not allowed to address because their corporate structure doesn’t allow it– they are purely incentivised by goals pre-defined by the business. These good people will leave and the threat to their employers is that new disruptive businesses will enter the market and eat their market share. Engagement is not about giving rewards for just hitting targets, it’s about empowering staff to solve problems. Employers have to embrace this.

Making it work

Hold up examples of what has worked and failed; invest in people’s ideas; try new things; keep piloting ideas; critically identify the innovators and give them space to experiment. Give your people the space–and the confidence–to fail. Not every idea will work, but this is how innovation works. It is about constant learning and improvement, so failure is tantamount to progress. This too should be recognised and encouraged, or people will have a fear of trying to innovate.

Being known for a culture of innovation means your business will attract a high caliber of job applicants, and when people leave you they can show they’ve been given responsibility and have learned about the entire product cycle, rather than just one component of it. This is very much part of the engagement journey. If employees are able to find a purpose in their work and a meaning for their business they will understand they’re making a difference to the company.

They can do good while doing–and this goes beyond profit. It’s about giving staff the autonomy and opportunity to interact with colleagues and see the big picture for their company’s place in the world.

By ian feaver
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