When Dr. Amantha Imber first meets with potential new hires for her company, Inventium, one of things she’ll ask is: “What are your favorite apps?”
Imber, a psychologist and the founder of Inventium, an innovation consultancy in Australia, says that the question helps her to get a “quick sense of how tech-savvy and tech aware they are.”
“I often feel there is a bit of a link between someone being tech-savvy and being able to solve those little problems that come up every day at work,” she says.
Imber says that she sees a growing trend in companies – including her own – to let more employees develop their own solutions to help them be more innovative and productive. Technology is certainly part of that equation, allowing workers who are closest to a problem to come up with the right solution when they need it instead of always relying on someone from IT.
She stresses it’s also important that leaders are vocal in supporting such efforts, which helps set the tone that innovation is a critical part of everyone’s job – including the C-suite – and must be a priority.
“When leaders delegate innovation, it signals to other employees that these leaders are too ‘important’ to be working on innovation, and that it thus has a lower priority than other activities that they don’t decide to delegate,” she says. “We know from research that having a culture that encourages risk-taking and where failure is not thought of as a dirty word is critical for allowing innovation to thrive.”
She says that it’s not only companies like Google that can empower their workers to reach for new ideas. For example, any manager can help individual workers be more innovative, simply by giving them an hour or two every week to work on innovative ideas, she says.
Imber says she came up with the formula for her book and the 14 variables she cites by using past studies that examined creativity and culture. In her new book, “The Innovation Formula: The 14 Science-Based Keys for Creating a Culture Where Innovation Thrives,” Imber uses this research to offer several other ways that companies can push greater innovation. Among them:
- Determining the right challenge level. Research supports the idea that giving individuals challenging work can help produce greater innovative outcomes. Managers need to carefully consider how tasks and projects are allocated, and ensure that each person is given a significant challenge when it’s possible. Not every assignment can be a “stretch,” she says, but research shows that if people are in a role that challenges them, 67% will demonstrate above-average creativity and innovation in their performance.
- Encouraging debate. Job-related diversity is important to drive innovation and “putting together teams with people who have very different backgrounds and experiences is critical,” she says. “Yet what happens in most companies is that people work in silos, generally with others of a similar background to them.” She advises that organizations need to deliberately encourage cross-functional collaboration, “as this will lead to significantly better thinking, particularly when it comes to innovation projects.” She also warns that companies cannot use far-flung remote teams as an excuse for the lack of innovation, as software tools like QuickBase and Google Hangouts can enable teams to work together effectively.
- Walking the talk. Research shows that at the most innovative companies in the world, leaders recognize that innovation is “something so important that they dedicate a lot of time to pursuing innovation projects,” she says. “This of course sends the signal to employees that innovation is one of the most important activities the company is engaging in.”
- Taking risks. While larger organizations tend to be more risk-averse than smaller ones, they can minimize their nervousness by adopting strategies such as micro-funding. She explains that under such a program, promising ideas are given small amounts of money for people to pursue innovative ideas, a way to experiment without moving straight into implementation.
- A sense of togetherness. “One of the biggest challenges I see large organizations face is trying to break down the silos and have everyone feel as though they are playing on the one team,” she says. “I don’t think there are any silver bullets for how to make this happen, but it’s critical to be aware of it and take action against it if you see signs arising.” One idea is to establish “buddy groups” that consist of four or five people who work in separate teams and are given about $15 a month to do an activity together outside of work, like bowling. New employees can quickly feel more included when they’re included in such groups.