Are You Ignoring the Everyday Innovators in Your Organization?
The innovation potential is in each of us and in every organization. But all too often, the process of generating new ideas and innovations goes unsupported, ignored, discouraged, and sometimes even punished. This can result in lower employee engagement, frustration, and even a desire to leave the organization altogether. It can also result in new ideas and innovations being kept at an individual or localized level and unleveraged for broader organizational impact. This can occur for a variety of reasons and involve a variety of individual and organizational factors. However, what matters most is the realization that generating, cultivating and sustaining innovation has never been more critical to our organizations, our communities and our world. Innovation is now everyone’s business, not just specific industries, functions, or roles. It is essential that everyone apply their potential toward building the individual and organizational innovation capabilities necessary for the advancement of our organizations, our communities and our world.
The reality is that people not only have a natural and inherent ability to innovate, but many are already doing so today, whether they are formally recognized or not. The key is to discover who these people are, not only to leverage their good ideas and innovations, but to strategically partner them with others to serve as role-models, mentors, and coaches. But how do you identify an Everyday Innovator? Our research and experience have found some common characteristics to look for.
First and foremost, the Everyday Innovator can be anyone, in any function, in any department, in any location, at any level. Often, the Everyday Innovator is not formally recognized as a “high potential” or on any future leader succession planning chart (although many should be). In fact, they might be one of the quiet workers in the corner cube who brings little attention to themselves yet has created several new tools, practices, and/or solutions that have improved their daily work. The Everyday Innovator may be the “unsung” worker that the larger organization has not formally recognized or rewarded (although many report that they’d appreciate an occasional “nice job” from their boss). They often demonstrate selflessness or “otherness,” as Adam Grant describes in his book, Give and Take (2013). They are driven by a passion to create and a desire to innovate for the greater good of their organization, their team, their customers, or their community. Everyday Innovators are resilient and tolerate and persevere through failure and disappointment. They will create even when not asked to and may do so even when other performers are afraid to “stick their necks out.” They possess a strong persistence and may go “underground” or “under the radar” in order to innovate. In a sense, they have to innovate and will not be denied—even when their direct leaders are unsupportive. As one Everyday Innovator stated, “Professionally, it was my most difficult year ever [due to an unsupportive leader], yet in that year were some of my greatest accomplishments.” Ironically, many Everyday Innovators do not even consider themselves to be particularly innovative. Sometimes only those closest to them know that they have created some “cool new tools” being used to improve their work and their organization.
Another characteristic of Everyday Innovators is that they are usually very hard workers, especially toward the things they have passion around, which, again, typically includes the desire to create for the greater good of their organization. Some of their innovations could potentially be broad-sweeping if only leveraged to the entire organization while others might be smaller, more “incremental” in nature and simply be a new way of performing a small process. Often, the innovations created by the Everyday Innovator are not communicated, shared, or leveraged to others in the wider organization. The Everyday Innovator may also have a lot of ideas still “in their head” which may result in some frustration if they are not effectively able to bring these ideas to life due to lack of support or an organizational culture that discourages new ideas or is full of fear (We have found many examples of Everyday Innovators who eventually left their organization due to an unsupportive leader or environment). Everyday Innovators have a strong passion, motivation, and energy for generating new ideas and innovation in support of what they believe in. As one Everyday Innovator said, “If I believe in something, I go for it!”
"I look for every opportunity to ask how I can do things differently"
Everyday Innovators know that innovation does not happen in a vacuum and they continuously seek to make “connections” to a diversity of sources to help generate and build upon ideas. They are often skillful collaborators and effective at networking and connecting with other people. However, more introverted innovators may emphasize connections to data (e.g., research, documents, books, articles), or to personal experiences.
Most Everyday Innovators are more inclined to ask a lot of good questions, rather than proclaim they have the one “right” answer. Everyday Innovators constantly seek learning, and they look to a wide-range and diversity of people, opinions, and perspectives from which to learn. They are very curious and open to new ideas and different ways. “I look for every opportunity to ask how I can do things differently,” said one Everyday Innovator. They also like to experiment and tinker and often have a knack for seeing relationships between seemingly unrelated concepts and ideas. As one Everyday Innovator said, “I like to connect dots so I’m constantly searching for new dots.”
Everyday Innovators are everywhere. They are in your organization right now. They seek to innovate during good times and bad times. From the shop floor to senior executives, these resilient people continuously strive to grow and make the most of their inherent and natural ability and need to innovate. And not always the big, game-changing innovations, but often the smaller, more incremental innovations that improve their everyday lives.
"I like to connect dots so I’m constantly searching for new dots"
Sometimes they will create new things out of need. Sometimes to eliminate a problem or to improve their current environment; but in most cases—more cases than not—Everyday Innovators create because they want to! They continuously seek new learning, new connections, new ideas and new ways to apply toward the greater good. And that is very powerful and very valuable in an organization—especially in today’s world.
So could you be ignoring the Everyday Innovators in your organization? It’s important to remember that Everyday Innovators aren’t necessarily the loudest in their words or actions. But they’re out there. Find your Everyday Innovators. Acknowledge them. Reward them (even if just with a “great job” and “thank you). Ask them about their ideas and innovations. Strategically partner them with others to help develop even more Everyday Innovators throughout your organization. An environment full of Everyday Innovators, along with organizational support, will result in a highly engaged, high-performing team.