7 Research-Backed Ways to Drive Workplace Innovation

By Emily Roner | Updated: 22 Jan, 2020

According to McKinsey, 84% of executives believe that innovation is critical for their business’s success, yet only 6% are satisfied with their current workplace innovation programs.

Innovation is tricky because, unlike most strategic objectives, there aren’t correct answers, and leaders have to accept a high failure rate. However, once you embrace the ambiguity, there are lots of tangible actions you can take to create an environment that fosters creativity and risk-taking.

Here are seven research-backed ways to drive workplace innovation.


1) Establish Goal Alignment & Maintain Goal Alignment

In a KPMG study on corporate innovation, 61% of respondents said the most significant challenge they face is competing priorities. Often this issue stems from some company leaders promoting strategies to get more out of existing capabilities while others are trying to spearhead a variety of innovative pet projects.

These mixed messages confuse employees and create stiff competition for resources. To solve this, 80% of successful companies integrate their corporate strategy and innovation teams. This allows your strategy teams to select the areas where innovation is most needed and gives your innovation teams more freedom to pursue out-of-the-box solutions.

Have representatives from each team meet regularly to ensure both are aligned on what innovations your company needs, what breakthroughs your team has made, and the timeline for implementation.

Related: 4 Goals Every Growth-Driven Manager Should Have


2) Build the Infrastructure to Fail Fast and Cheaply

Though leaders know innovation is critical, many are hesitant to fund new projects because they fear they’ll never get an ROI. To solve this, KPMG found that highly innovative companies have an infrastructure that encourages their employees to fail fast and cheaply. This ensures that the only projects that get significant funding are the ones that show promise from a very early stage.

Here’s how you can build fail fast infrastructure:

  • Give everyone in your company the opportunity to pitch their innovative ideas. Allow people to do this through their direct managers or monthly pitch events in front of a committee. Focus on the idea’s ROI potential, not the presenter’s speaking skills. Often, people who are highly capable of producing innovative ideas are not the most charismatic.
  • Provide a small budget and timeline to pursue ideas that have potential. This should be relative to the average costs and pace in your industry plus the individual’s existing workload.
  • At the deadline, check in to see if they’ve made meaningful progress toward generating an ROI. If they haven’t, end the initiatives. If they have, create a budget and timeline to move forward.

Using a system like this ensures that your employees are constantly working on innovative projects without wasting a lot of resources on initiatives that never produce their intended results.


3) Enable Employees to Get Into the Flow

Most companies attempt to drive innovation by forcing employees to collaborate regularly. However, once your employees understand their goals, they’re most productive when you give them alone time to focus intensely on their project.

Groundbreaking research from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found the most consistently productive and creative people frequently work in flow states. According to Csikszentmihalyi, the highest form of the flow state is when people are so immersed in what they’re doing, they completely block out everything else around them. Often, they experience an ecstatic feeling of connectedness to their work and, if left uninterrupted, their mind doesn’t emerge until they’ve made significant progress on the creative piece or problem they’re working on.

Flow is the ultimate form of productive innovation. To encourage flow, you need to create an environment where employees can lose themselves for hours in their work without having to worry about constant interruptions, inconvenient meetings, or having to explain their emerging ideas to coworkers.


4) Provide Frequent, Candid Feedback

The one consequence of encouraging employees to work in flow states is that they become so immersed and personally connected to their work that they often can’t see its flaws. To prevent poorly conceived ideas from going too far, you need to host frequent feedback sessions.

Pixar is a great example of a company that realized this early on and created a system to deliver it effectively. In his book, Creativity Inc. Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull describes how his team created the Braintrust, which is a team of leaders and creators who provide constructive criticism at every phase of a movie’s development.

In Braintrust meetings, creative teams share what they’ve produced so far, and the remaining members criticize every part that they think should be improved before the next milestone. Pixar encourages candid feedback by coaching employees on how to criticize the project, not the person who created it, and prevents employees on both sides from facing negative retaliation.

To foster workplace innovation, you need to create your own version of the Braintrust that meets at a frequency that makes sense for the pace of creative progress at your company. If you’re working on multi-year projects like Pixar, you may only need meetings once a quarter. However, if your team releases multiple product updates a year, you may need to host them on a biweekly or monthly basis.

Related: Want Employees to Embrace Feedback? Improve Psychological Safety


5) Encourage Innovation In Your Core Business

Innovative initiatives shouldn’t be limited to groundbreaking projects that your R&D team develops. There are opportunities throughout your business for employees to drive creative improvements; you have to empower them to do so.

Here are some parts of your core business that may be overdue for innovation:

  • Standard processes - look for ways to make them more efficient
  • Team analytics - figure out ways to better capture and leverage your data
  • Internal & external messaging - identify more motivating ways to talk about what your company is doing
  • Office layout - create an environment that boosts productivity

In your meetings, invite employees to share their ideas for improvement. If their ideas are reasonable, empower them to move forward with implementation.

Related: How to Motivate Your Employees to Engage in Continuous Learning


6) Remove the Stigma Around Taking Risks

Even if you encourage your core employees to innovate, the majority won’t because they feel too constrained. According to Gallup, only 18% of employees feel like they’re allowed to take risks that could develop new solutions. The remaining keep their ideas to themselves because they’re afraid that taking actions outside of their standard processes will lead to negative consequences.

To prevent risk aversion from hindering workplace innovation, you need to empower your employees to act outside of their standard processes and not fear retaliation.

Here’s how:

  • Teach your team how to take educated risks. Not all risks are worthwhile. Let your team know what kinds of data and reasoning they should use to justify the risks they want to take.
  • Treat failures constructively. Innovative projects have a high failure rate. Accept that and focus on helping your team learn from the process, so they don’t repeat the same mistakes.
  • Publicly praise employees whose risks pay off. Every employee craves the validation of being praised by their managers. When you praise people who take successful risks, it shows the rest of your team what they should strive for.

Over time, your employees will become comfortable taking risks and driving workplace innovation.


7) Free Up Your Top Performers' Time

A Workfront report found that 58% of workers are so busy tackling their to-do list that they don’t have time to even think about being innovative. This is a massive loss for your company since your top performers are capable of driving significant innovation outside of their core role.

There are two key ways you can free up their time for more strategic work:

  1. Reduce the number of meetings they are required to attend. The average professional spends 18% of their day in meetings, and they say about half of those are a waste of time.
  2. Give them an assistant so they can offload their admin tasks. Professionals spend 12% of their time on tedious admin work that doesn’t require their authority or expertise.

Taking these steps gives your top performers approximately 20% of their day back, so they have time to pursue innovative projects.

If your in-house assistants cannot support additional people, consider leveraging virtual assistants. As a managed service, all of our VAs are our employees who we train and manage. All your team has to do is offload admin tasks to their dedicated VA.

Want to learn more about we support senior & executive teams? Download our free guide to working with Prialto virtual assistants:

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About the Author: Emily formerly led Prialto's content production and distribution team with a special passion for helping people realize success. Her work and collaborations have appeared in Entrepreneur, Inc. and the Observer among others.