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‘Think like an entrepreneur’… How to fuel innovative thinking without the cliché

Discussions around the boardroom table regularly feature, in some form, how the business or organisation can shake off the shackles of legacy issues and system constraints to start thinking like a start-up.

Useful as it can be to adopt a bit of ‘blue sky thinking’, considering the opportunities outside the remits of BAU; when it inevitably leads to encouraging employees to think like an entrepreneur, it’s dodgy ground.

What are some issues with innovative thinking?

First of all – in my opinion – asking employees to be more entrepreneurial is a flawed concept. As a broad-brush stereotype, an entrepreneur has their skin in the game, will put their house on the line to get an idea off the ground and will live and breathe a new business 24/7. As committed as your employees may be, if that level of dedication will not lead to them becoming mortgage free or famous, then they are unlikely to be inclined, or equipped, to truly think entrepreneurially.

By their nature, entrepreneurs are lateral thinkers; visionaries; people prepared to champion ideas, and people with the time, cash and influence to put their weight behind them. That’s just not Rob in accounts. Rob gets his head down and focuses with laser-like precision on getting the job done – and that’s what you need from him. Ask Rob to think like an entrepreneur and he’ll either think you are speaking Latin, or fear that you are threatening his livelihood.

Secondly, is it really entrepreneurial thinking you’re after? When companies talk about innovation in this context, it is often used as a catch-all for continuous improvement. Do you really want all your employees focused on R&D, or simply switched on to finding new and better ways of doing their everyday stuff?

When pressed, it’s generally the latter. So how can we generate ownership and empowerment to fuel innovation with a small ‘i’?

  1. Celebrate success and failure consistently

Review your recognition programmes, celebrate new values-led thinking and the people behind it. Reward it and show it’s being rewarded – as humans we are naturally competitive and nothing stokes creativity more than seeing others succeed – or at least trying to.

It’s well known that failing is a key component of innovation, but when the parameters in which employees can fail are unclear, the status quo can be the safest option. ‘Dare to Try’, a category in Tata’s Innovista awards, rewards informative failures, backing the thinking that if we all shared our lessons learnt, we’d get to exciting places much quicker.

Recognise the major achievements, but just as importantly, recognise the smaller ones on a regular basis. This will start to fuel the culture you want to create.

  1. Be clear on your goals

Want more commercial partnerships? Attract a new audience segment? Better your customer experience? When your people are clear on where you want to go, the ‘innovation’ challenge is more focused and can feel more achievable. Link it to your organisation’s purpose, and you’re empowering employees to play a key part in its success.

From formal continuous improvement methodology training, like that given to every employee at National Grid, to creative thinking events employed by the likes of our lovely clients at Photobox Group, there are numerous ways to set the challenge in a way which is right for your business. The latter may sound fluffy, but biannual make-a-thons open to all employees have led to award-winning creations on the production line and changes to the whole customer experience.

  1. Build an employee experience which supports innovation

From collaborative workspaces (see my colleague Liz’s musings on why this means more than free coffee and yoga), time out ‘thinking policies’ inspired by Google’s infamous ‘20% Time’, and collaboration platforms such as Microsoft Teams and Slack, the environment and tools available to employees can help foster (or hinder) a culture of innovation.

If you want every layer of the organisation to think more innovatively, be clear on what this means in practice, and seed room for creativity into your employee experience – from inductions, to tech to team meetings.

Unsurprisingly, explicit ‘Invent and Simplify’ leadership behaviours feed Amazon’s ubiquitous innovation culture. The behaviours set expectations of how every leader can facilitate and personally drive innovation in their area. From day one, everyone knows what good looks like.

In summary – getting the foundations right to fuel innovative behaviour is half the battle; getting the right people in the right place for innovation to thrive is of course the other. But let’s first be clear of the ask and avoid the eye-rolling clichés. Do you really want everyone to think like an entrepreneur? After all, if we had companies full of entrepreneurs, who would start the start-ups?

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