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3 pillars to help your company innovate consistently

Start with psychological safety across your team.

3 pillars to help your company innovate consistently
[Photos: Chris Brignola/Unsplash; NASA/Unsplash]

Back in 2020, when most of us were doomscrolling for news about when the pandemic would finally end, I read an article by consulting firm McKinsey & Co. that piqued my curiosity: “Prioritizing innovation today is the key to unlocking postcrisis growth,” the piece read.

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At the time it seemed absurd to even think about anything other than surviving or riding out the wave. Nobody seemed to know what was going on. Companies everywhere were scrambling to stay afloat, or worse, were paralyzed by uncertainty. As CEO of my form-building business for the past 16 years, I’d never experienced anything like it.

Then something surprising started to happen: We saw small businesses begin innovating, even rising to the occasion. And then larger companies and organizations followed suit. It became imperative to find new virtual solutions—to think outside the box we’d always lived in.

Take healthcare, for example. The COVID-19 crisis dramatically accelerated innovation in digital health—making it so that live-video visits weren’t only necessary but also effective. Organizations all over the world also began innovating with communication tools like Zoom or Google Classroom to host virtual classes, meetings, and workshops.

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It’s fair to say that a cataclysmic event like the ongoing pandemic has jump-started all of this change and modernization over the past two-plus years, and there are no signs of it slowing down. So the big question we should now be asking ourselves is how can we, as entrepreneurs, plan for continuous innovation? Here are some strategies to help you keep up with the pace.

Kind leadership drives innovation

Most business leaders assume that innovation stems from adapting to shifting needs, remaining competitive, and creating opportunities that previously didn’t exist. But a surprising 2021 study from Signature Consultants and a national research data firm discovered “a clear connection between the practice of kind leadership and a company’s ability to create an environment where innovation can flourish.”

The real kicker? According to their research, your organization is five times more likely to be considered innovative if it’s kind. So it stands to reason that “putting profits over people” will not lead to a continued state of innovating. If anything, things will come to a halt.

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At my company kindness isn’t just something we preach so that we all just “get along,” it’s one of our core values—and one to which I attribute much of the progress we’ve made before and throughout this crisis.

What does that mean? We offer feedback with care, check in with one another regularly, and show empathy and understanding rather than frustration and micromanaging.

Promote psychological safety

All of the above actions I mention are essential for employees to feel safe enough to explore their creativity, share their thoughts and concerns on projects, and believe they have permission to be open and honest with their peers and supervisors alike. Harvard Business Review contributors Amy C. Edmondson and Per Hugander define psychological safety as “the confidence that candor and vulnerability are welcome” in the workplace.

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These are key ingredients for keeping innovation steadily on track. The researchers warn that without them, the free exchange of ideas, concerns, and questions is likely to be hindered—thereby killing morale.

So, what’s to be done? How exactly can leaders create more psychological safety?

According to the coauthors of the HBR story, part of the equation means normalizing vulnerability at work.

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They note that practicing even small acts of vulnerability reduces anxiety and overall tension. This is one of the biggest reasons I advocate for opening up about mental health challenges. As CEO, if I share a story about struggling with perfectionism and feelings of overwhelm, it has a trickle-down effect where my team feels these topics aren’t taboo.

Maintain a vibrant, engaging culture

Let me put this in plain words: A dull, lifeless culture will not lead to innovation. And by “dull” and “lifeless” I mean a company with high expectations and little to no respect for its employees’ opinions. I’ve heard too many stories from friends about supervisors prioritizing money over meaning—productivity over their employees’ well-being.

Fostering an environment that embraces experimentation and risk creates the vibrancy needed for continued innovation.

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When I hold meetings with my teams, I make sure it’s not some lengthy monologue dictating orders. I ask questions and, more specifically, I make it a point to engage with the quietest individuals in the room; they’re often the ones with the most surprising ideas.

What many leaders fail to recognize about creating an engaging culture is that so much of it comes from actively listening—in being curious and open. It’s not about hosting all kinds of team-bonding activities (though I don’t discount their value), it’s about leading with kindness, trust, and vulnerability.

That’s how the spark of an idea turns into a full flame of innovation.

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Aytekin Tank is the founder and CEO of Jotform, a leading online forms SaaS solution.

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