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Innovation is not a concept confined to the private sector. Governmental and public sector organizations are facing increasing pressures to adapt – to challenge the status quo and meet the ever-evolving needs of 21st-century society.
To do so, they need to embrace new ways of thinking, adopt new processes and technologies, and be responsive to change.
All of this requires an organizational culture of innovation.
What Is a Culture of Innovation?
No two organizations are the same and working culture comes in many forms, but when we talk about a culture of innovation, there are commonalities across the board.
As a top-level definition, a culture of innovation is a working environment that promotes continual development and improvement. Of course, in practice, it is far more complex.
It is a sum of all parts. It encompasses an organization’s values and purpose, its people, working practices and managerial structure. It is cross-functional, bringing disparate teams together under a common goal.
Innovation culture gives employees the freedom and, most importantly, the support to think differently – but to be successful, it requires careful juxtaposition of certain approaches.
Employees must be given autonomy, but at the same time governed by strong workplace leadership. They must be supported in their failures, but not to the point that failure becomes the norm. They should be encouraged to explore new ideas, but in a structured manner, and there needs to be the right balance between collaboration and individual accountability.
When all of these practices align, and the entire workforce shares a common understanding, it leads to an organizational culture with innovation at its core.
Why Encourage Innovation in the Workplace?
Innovation in the public sector is a growing necessity. According to the Innovation Policy Platform, creative, fresh and technology-driven approaches help to:
- Improve accessibility – By simplifying the process of accessing services and providing round-the-clock support.
- Encourage public participation – Engaging users in the design and delivery of services to ensure they effectively meet demand.
- Provide flexibility – By tailoring services in line with user behaviors and specific needs.
From a different perspective, Deloitte suggests public sector innovation is crucial to solving increasingly complex issues, building and maintaining trust with service users, and attracting the most innovative minds to help implement and drive change.
Ultimately, organizations that fail to encourage innovation in the workplace fall behind the curve, and the services they provide become unfit for purpose.
Those that do create a culture of innovation, however, will benefit from increased engagement and productivity, greater collaboration and commitment, and a workforce passionate about providing user-focused solutions.
They’ll also see a boost in employee morale and well-being, driven by an all-inclusive environment in which everyone’s efforts are integral to effective service delivery.
How to Encourage Innovation in the Workplace
Encouraging innovation is not a stand-alone activity. It’s a combination of practices that together form an effective strategy.
How you implement change will depend on the organizational culture that already exists, but consider the below techniques to inform your approach.
Make It a Core Organizational Value
Innovation happens from the ground up, but it’s encouraged from the top down. For employees to take action, they need to know their efforts are welcomed and supported, so show this in the values you promote.
It’s not enough to present a mission statement that points towards innovation. The message needs to be communicated over and over again, and staff need to feel that they’re part of the process.
When you focus on a shared set of values, you give employees a reason to care, and subsequently a reason to contribute.
Adopt Empowering Work Practices
An innovative culture requires the freedom to speak out, without fear of retribution or ridicule. It also requires time for creativity to occur, so look at your working practices and how conducive they are to new ideas.
Brainstorming sessions may prove effective on occasion, but they put pressure on employees to think on demand. Rather than encouraging it, this often stunts creativity.
Instead, you might consider giving staff a time allowance to focus on developing their ideas, then discussing these in a structured environment. Or you might run workshop activities that encourage them to look at a problem from an end-user perspective before exploring a solution.
Whatever approaches you take, it’s all about empowerment – showing the workforce that their opinions and ideas are vital to problem-solving and using them in the decision-making process.
Create a Diverse Workforce
The best ideas occur when different perspectives are taken into account, discussed, and evaluated. To gain these perspectives, you need a workforce that comprises people of different backgrounds, ages, beliefs, and abilities.
If everyone thought the same way, the status quo would prevail, so make diversity a priority. It’s not a box-ticking exercise – it’s a strategy towards greater innovation.
Reward Innovation (and Avoid Punishing Failure)
When great ideas are brought to the table they need to be recognized and rewarded. If they’re not, staff become demoralized and gradually less inclined to put in the effort.
Whether you choose to reward through public acknowledgment or some other workplace incentive is down to you, so long as you applaud a job well done.
At the same time, acknowledge that failure is an inevitable by-product of innovation. Every stroke of genius is informed by experimentation, so rather than punishing failure, encourage it.
There’s a fine line to tread here though. While employees should not be afraid to make mistakes, it also needs to be clear that incompetence or negligence will not be tolerated.
Failure needs to be disciplined, that is to say, it should be encouraged only when it promotes creative success.
Feedback on and Implement Ideas
To encourage true innovation, there needs to be a mantra that no idea is a bad idea.
If you fail to discuss something that’s brought to the table you’re essentially dismissing it, so put a process in place for constructive feedback.
When employees see that their ideas have been taken on board and explored, they’re assured that their contribution has meaning, and are thus more inclined to share ideas in the future.
Of course, not everything will be put into practice. Some ideas simply won’t suit, but those that do should be implemented as soon as possible. Again, when your workforce sees their input turn into action, their commitment to innovation will only increase.
Flatten the Hierarchical Structure
A strict hierarchy can stifle innovation. Employees have to jump through hoops to get their ideas heard, let alone approved, and it often creates an ‘us and them’ environment where staff do what they’re told when they’re told, leaving little room for creative thought.
When you flatten this structure, the whole working culture shifts.
Senior management leads by example, taking a hands-on approach and collaborating at all levels. Staff have quick access to key decision-makers, meaning they can get their ideas off the ground without the red tape, and the whole workforce feels part of the bigger picture.
The key to innovation is to encourage collaboration, not just between team members, but across different departments and managerial levels.
To do this, your workforce needs to be integrated, and every member aware of how their role fits into the wider organization.
Create relaxed environments where staff can mingle and learn from each other, adopt collaborative software technologies and promote interdepartmental meetings. You could even consider job swaps, allowing employees to see organizational goals from a different perspective.
The more you bring the workforce together as one, the more you’ll find the sharing of ideas occurs. Innovations become more carefully considered, born from a broader understanding of how best to achieve any given objective.
Focus on Work-Life Balance
If there’s one thing that can knock innovation completely off course, it’s employee burnout. If staff are not given enough personal freedom, their stress levels rise, their motivation falls and their creativity falters.
In contrast, when the right work-life balance is hit, staff feel energized and enthusiastic. They’re more productive in their daily tasks, giving more time to focus on ways to improve processes and services.
An organization that promotes a healthy work-life balance will also find greater staff loyalty. The best minds will be retained because they feel valued and happy in their work.
Change does not happen overnight. Creating a culture of innovation in a long-term strategy takes patience and commitment – but the rewards are well worth the effort.
Organizations that focus on innovation build a stronger workforce and bring out the best in every single employee. They retain top talent, promote cost savings and earn public trust.
What’s more, public sector organizations simply cannot standstill. They need to keep one step ahead of the times to ensure that the services they provide suit 21st-century life and help to tackle the challenges that society as a whole must embrace head-on.