Warning! Are You Hindering Your Employees' Creativity? Four ways to keep innovation alive as your company grows

By Heather R. Huhman

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.


Startups tend to build multitasking champions. Daily, entrepreneurs and their team members deal with a fast-paced, ever-changing set of responsibilities demanding feedback, ideas and execution. And the inherent challenges can develop employees' knowledge, skills and persistence.

Related: How to Inspire Innovation Within Your Business

But the mundane day-to-day tasks startups require can also take a toll on their creativity.

"In many ways, being stretched thin and moving so quickly can make it difficult for employees to be innovative or see great moments of opportunity," Stephanie Mardell, whose title at Button in New York City is "head of people."

When Button faced a lack of innovation, Mardell said, the company found that establishing a semi-annual, full-day hackathon gave employees room to explore new options -- and revitalize those employees' creativity. "Our internal hackathons have encouraged cross-team collaboration and product innovation," Mardell said. "In fact, we've had a few projects turn into critical products used by some of our largest partners."

The takeaway? "Creating a culture where ideas at any level or title are valued is one of the most important things you can do for your people and product and the overall success of the company," Mardell said.

Here are some key steps to keep innovation alive as your company grows:

1. Understand what true innovation looks like.

Many people think new innovations have to be "sexy." But as Samar Birwadker, CEO and founder of Good & Co., in San Francisco, points out, it's more important to recognize that in their infancy, most innovative ideas don't appear that way.

"The key to being a successful leader is picking out those initially unsexy innovative ideas, and then either handing them to someone who can package them correctly, or packaging them yourself," Birwadker said.

By giving employees a formal way to voice their ideas, company leaders can help them develop them into more attractive ideas.

Related: How Your Own 'Startup Weekend' Will Help Drive Company Innovation

At Good & Co, Birwadker realized that while his designers were working on app evolutions, redesigning the comany website and conducting other important work, they were just doing what they were told. While the work allowed employees to be creative, they didn't have the opportunity to express ideas about other aspects of the company.

When leadership opened a channel for employee feedback, however, innovation came flooding in. "Suddenly one of our newest, most junior designers let loose with these insanely creative and fascinating ideas on how to redecorate our office," Birwadker said. "And then another designer came up with these adorable '404' pages featuring our office dogs."

Look for ways to enable employees to express their ideas. The creativity is likely already there in the minds of employees. Leaders simply need to listen.

2. Make time for innovation.

A 2017 Softchoice survey of 1,250 North American employees and IT decision makers found that only 25 percent of respondents felt encouraged to challenge the status quo at their company.

That's a poor reflection on companies. But some are taking steps to counter that scenario. "We always want our employees to be engaged and fulfilled," said David Sturt, executive vice president at O.C. Tanner in Salt Lake City. "If they feel their work is mundane, they'll leave."

Sturt described a star employee he'd known at another company who was the primary developer on his product-development team. After devoting himself for several months toa rigorous development process, the employee asked for opportunities to be more innovative and groundbreaking with his skills. Since he was essential to the team's main project, Sturt felt he was confronting a difficult personnel decision.

"I didn't want to lose him because he didn't feel challenged or stimulated," Sturt said. "After careful discussion, we decided together to let him use 20 percent of his work week to focus on new, not-yet-defined projects that excited him."

That move worked well. Having gained creative freedom, the developer created a prototype of a product that became a key differentiator and great success for the company.

The lesson here is that when a company actually builds "innovation time" into employees' schedules, they feel encouraged and supported to work on new projects. As the company grows, this culture of innovation should grow with it. It will show employees that creativity is a valued part of their job.

3. Stop comparing yourself to others.

When a company defines success by what someone else is doing, it may end up copying someone else's innovation, not creating its own.

Mike Hammontree, CEO at Wundr Media in Las Vegas, found that some of the content producers at his company were comparing themselves to other well-known industry publications. "There's no room for innovation at that point," Hammontree explained. "How can you do something new and creative when you are comparing yourself to someone else's work all the time?"

Once the team members recalibrated and began to think more authentically about their own work, they found that what they themselves were producing was better and more innovative.

Using another company's success or methods as a benchmark only serves to hinder creativity. So, if you're providing employee feedback, measure "success" on how they've met their objectives rather than how your competitors have met theirs.

4. Don't fear failure.

While goals are important, sometimes they crush innovation. If leaders create an atmosphere where employees are scared to take chances, they won't feel comfortable thinking outside of the box.

When Jacob Shriar and his team at Officevibe in Montreal set goals that were overly ambitious, he told me, so much pressure mounted to hit the numbers that the team stopped innovating. Instead, it relied on past methods its members knew would work.

"I think a lot of companies experience what we did," Shriar said. "You get to a point where you experience rapid growth and you don't have the time or energy to experiment much anymore, and you just keep turning the wheels."

Failure is just another factor that comes with innovation. Companies that get comfortable with the lessons they learn from failures will see the long-term benefits of enabling creativity.

So, if this sounds like your company, consider utilizing software like Zugata to enable your organization to set goals that empower, not stifle employees. The platform collects data and feedback on employee performance, and allows employees to focus on individual goals that align with the goals of the company.

Related: 4 Steps to Cultivating an Innovation Mindset in Your Organization

The result? More innovation.

Heather R. Huhman

Career and Workplace Expert; Founder and President, Come Recommended

Waldorf, Md.-based Heather R. Huhman is a career expert, experienced hiring manager and president of Come Recommended, the PR solution for job search and HR tech companies. She writes about issues impacting the modern workplace.

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