How to create a workplace culture of innovation

How to Create a Workplace Culture of Innovation

**this blog was written in collaboration with Google Bard.

Imagine an office where laughter echoes alongside brainstorming sessions, walls sing with scribbles of impossible dreams, and the air crackles with the electricity of “what ifs.” This is not a scene from a sci-fi movie but the potential reality of any organization that dares to crack the door and ventilate the hidden potential within of an innovative workplace culture. (Bard has a penchant for the dramatic; I hope that I modified it enough to make it suitably dramatic and not so over-the-top)

How to create a workplace culture of innovation:

Dethroning the Conformist Ruler Hiding In Your Workplace Culture

Innovation isn’t a passive pursuit. This is no doom scrolling on the can situation. It’s not about waiting for a lightning bolt to strike your forehead.

It’s about actively cultivating a culture where creativity thrives, where risks are not roadblocks, but stepping stones, and where failure is a springboard for bestowing the confidence to take small risks. 

How can you ignite the spark within every individual to build a workplace culture and ecosystem where those sparks can coalesce like a melted marshmallow in a bonfire into an inferno of groundbreaking ideas to help your organization to keep up with the ever-increasing pace of change?

(Ok, Bard suggested the inferno bit and wanted to make it roaring, which I had to tone down a bit, tbh. Then, I added the melted marshmallow because… yummy. AI isn’t so great at analogies, like the image of melting marshmallows as something that is coalescing. Remember, AI is a tool not a replacement for creative or critical thinking, and for someone like me with ADHD, it is very helpful for structure.)

We need some pyromania. The best kind – the kind that sets fire to the mundane and burns the status quo to the ground. We’ll delve into the untapped depths of human creativity, explore the art of embracing (and learning from) failure, and build a creative environment and workplace culture where collaboration becomes a symphony of diverse voices, each note adding its unique melody to the grand innovation concerto.

Let’s see this journey through the eyes of Sarah, a leader who just wants her team to care, to share opinions, and to bring the same enthusiasm to work as they bring to the Thursday Taco Special.

Let’s follow her journey to discover how to nurture her own creative mindset and share it with the team, for innovative ideas, team cohesion, and taco truck level enthusiasm.

Table of Contents

Can Workplace Culture Be Changed To A Place Where Innovation Happens?

Why Aren’t Your Employees Sharing Their Ideas At Work?

Leadership Dilemma: Why Leadership Training is Important

When Innovation Goes Wrong: How Leaders Stifle Creativity

What Leadership Style Fosters Creativity?

7 Team Engagement Strategies to Foster Innovation

How Long Does Innovation Take?

Employee Engagement Increases Motivation Levels

What Are The Benefits of an Innovative Workplace Culture?

This blog is your guide to becoming a pyromaniac of the best kind – the kind who sets fire to the mundane and watches innovation blast into the sky like a firework. 

Can Workplace Culture be Changed to a Place Where Innovation Happens?

The conference room air hung heavy with apathy, a silent symphony of stifled eye rolls behind long blinking lids. Ten heads bowed in deference to their digital escape from the drudgery, seeking refuge from the awkward silence that filled the ultra-modern and sterile conference room.

“Any thoughts on how we can boost engagement with the new product launch?”

Strained with feigned enthusiasm, Sarah’s voice sliced through the quiet like a speakerphone conversation on public transit.

A smattering of throat clearing and chair shuffling ensued, but no words dared to break free. Eyes darted around the room, feigning sudden fascination with door handles and tape strands stuck to the walls. The silence settled back in like a thick blanket of snow.

Each mind held a flicker of potential, a spark of creativity waiting to catch flame. But those embers had been crushed by too many meetings like this. Moments where vulnerability had been met with dismissive glances or mocking laughter. The fear of ridicule had become a fortress, protecting egos but imprisoning innovation. (Ok, Google, tone down the drama amirite?)

Even Sarah, the well-intentioned manager, seemed oblivious to the walls she’d unwittingly helped to build. She yearned for a team that buzzed with energy and ideas, but her pleas for engagement remained unanswered, lost in a labyrinth of self-doubt and silent surrender.

(are you starting to guess the AI generated language? I can spot it a mile away. Or, as AI would say, a long drive through a perilous mocking that is the feeling one gets when we navigate adversity in an explosion of melancholy…..)

In this stifling atmosphere of conformity, a single question hung unspoken: Is it hopeless? Is there a way to spark the team’s creativity? Is there someone we can blame?

Why Aren’t Your Employees Sharing Their Ideas at Work?

The tension that followed Sarah’s question about boosting engagement with the upcoming product launch could have sliced an apple. (not AI, btw)

Each employee wrestles with their own private fears: their brilliance may be trapped beneath a thick layer of fear, armour and conformity.

What Kills Innovation – Worry #1: “Will I be called stupid?”

For Ethan, the fear was rooted in a childhood of ridicule. His every attempt at self-expression had been met with laughter or scorn, teaching him to silence his ideas before they could take flight. Now, even in the supposed safety of this meeting, he felt the old ghosts whispering in his ear. They warn him to stay silent and play it safe.

What can we do about this? Be on the lookout for side eyes, scoffs, sighs. One solution might be to implement an anonymous brainstorming space or technique like Brainwriting. This helps people to focus more on the ideas than the ideator.

 Why does Workplace Culture Matter?  Worry #2: “What happened the last time I gave an idea?”

For Maya, the struggle was different. She craved recognition and approval, desperately wanting to prove her worth to the team. However, her past experiences had taught her that bold ideas often led to rejection. It was safer to blend in, to echo the opinions of others, than to risk standing out and being judged. There was that one time her idea was launched, and she will never live it down.

What can we do about this? All employees want their ideas to come to life but they may feel let down if they are not implemented. They might not mind if the idea is shelved (only after the effort has been made to quantify the rejection of the idea). 

Leadership Dilemma: Why Leadership Training Is Important in Developing A Workplace Culture of Innovation

As the silence stretched on, Sarah’s frustration grew. She had hoped for a lively brainstorming session, a spark of creativity to ignite their new campaign. But instead, she found herself facing a wall of apathy and fear.

She didn’t realize that she, too, played a role in building that wall. Her own need for control, her subtle discouragement of dissenting opinions, and her non-poker-face-like physical reactions, despite being unconscious, had contributed to the stifling atmosphere in the room.

The conflict between creativity and conformity had reached a stalemate. The team was trapped in a cycle of fear and silence, unable to embrace their unique voices.

Everyone, including Sarah, knows creativity drives innovation, but where is the six-step plan to draw out their hidden genius? 

Sarah’s frustration stems from a common paradox known as the “leadership dilemma.”  While leaders often desire a workplace culture bursting with innovation and creativity, they can unconsciously stifle it through unconscious biases and behaviours.

To unlock her team’s creative potential, Sarah must first become aware of her own biases and learn strategies to counteract them. Then, she must have the skills and support to create an environment and workplace culture where bold ideas can flourish. Why does this sound like the story arc of every hero’s journey? Because it’s true, even if the battlefield is Microsoft 365 and the weapon is a latte.

When Innovation Goes Wrong: How Leaders Stifle Creativity

Here are four key factors that may contribute to Sarah’s struggle:

1. Unconscious Bias Towards Conformity: How Innovation Really Works

You may be struggling with an unconscious bias towards conformity. Research suggests that leaders often favour ideas that align with their own thinking, even if they consciously value diversity and thought. This can lead to the silencing of unconventional ideas (even if not on purpose).

Check your poker face. Not all communication is verbal. You can communicate, “That is the worst idea I have ever heard,” without saying a word.

Leaders should create a team-like environment where employees can come together, learn from one another, share their stories, and collaborate. A few ways to kickstart this is to structure a meeting to create room for creativity and divergent thinking for everyone in the room to speak. 

Enter your email HERE and get a 4-page guide on crafting meetings for innovation.

2. Need for Control: Leadership Requires Letting Go of Control

Leaders often feel responsible for outcomes, leading to a desire for control over the creative process. This can manifest as micromanagement or quick dismissal of ideas that challenge the status quo. One of the reasons I could craft unique and disruptive experiences in my corporate position was because my manager allowed me to find my way.

Some management experts say you can tell people which mountain to climb but not how to climb it. I was supported in taking risks, and with proper risk assessment, those risks paid off. We stood out as innovative, fun, and unique, increasing our market share in the region. Plus, we actually did have more fun.

3. Fear of Failure: How to Overcome Fear of Failure at Work

Innovative ideas inherently carry risk. Leaders may subconsciously avoid those risks, favouring safer, more predictable solutions. It’s fair, when it’s your butt on the line, you want to avoid the heat.

You can start with small experiments for your team and yourself to build confidence. Get in the habit of risk mitigation and reverse damage assessment. Gary Klein at HBR calls it a Premortem, but I prefer the more medically appropriate term ANTEmortem, meaning “pre death”.

4. You’re Not Fostering Psychological Safety in the Workplace

Without a climate of trust and openness, team members feel hesitant to share bold ideas for fear of judgment or ridicule. Sarah’s subtle eyebrow lifts and disapproving clucks historically discouraged dissenting opinions and have likely contributed to this lack of safety in her team. Even worse, her actions do not match her words, like when she says, “I want to hear all of your ideas,” but shuts down every idea. People learn quickly. Your unconscious actions can quickly drive your workplace culture into one where creativity is stifled.

Thanks to Adam Grant for sharing this great cartoon on Linkedin.

Dissent is uncomfortable, and we would all rather sit in a circle and sing kumbaya together. Our synchronicity feels safe and pleasant. However, dissent is proven to increase the validity and efficacy of ideas, even if the dissenter is wrong. The old movie 12 Angry Men illustrates the power of dissent to prompt meaningful dialogue and evaluation of an existing idea. Charlan Nemeth, in the book “In Defense of Troublemakers”* explores the importance of welcoming dissent to improve ideas and decisions.

*This is an Amazon affiliate link. If you make a purchase using this link, I may receive a small percentage which I can use toward creating more content like this!

What Leadership Style Fosters A Creative Workplace Culture?

Sarah’s journey of self-awareness and transformation highlights the crucial role of leaders in fostering creativity and innovation within their teams and overall workplace culture.

Key insights from her journey, as well as the Gallup report, reveal essential elements for driving a creative organization:

  • Acknowledge the Leader’s Dilemma: Sarah’s experience shows that leaders may inadvertently stifle innovation. Recognizing this paradox is the first step toward change.
  • Cultivate Self-Awareness: Sarah’s reflection on her biases and behaviors is crucial. Leaders must understand how their actions impact team creativity to make necessary adjustments.
  • Prioritize Psychological Safety: The Gallup report emphasizes the importance of creating an environment where team members feel safe to express ideas, experiment, and take risks without fear of judgment or ridicule.
  • Embrace Divergent Thinking: Encourage diverse perspectives and challenge conventional approaches. Value ideas that differ from your own and those that disrupt the status quo. Always identify when you are in “divergent” mode and reserve judgement and criticism for later, when it’s time to converge.
  • Foster Ownership and Autonomy: Empower team members to take ownership of their ideas and provide them with the autonomy to explore and experiment.
  • Celebrate Failure as Learning: Reframe failure as a necessary part of the creative process and an opportunity for growth.
  • Model Creative Behavior: Leaders set the tone. Demonstrate a willingness to be open-minded, take risks, and embrace unconventional approaches.

By embracing these principles, Sarah can transform her leadership style, unlock her team’s creative potential, and drive innovation within her organization.

For a deep dive on Psychological Safety in Organization, read Amy Edmondson’s book The Fearless Organization.

7 Team Engagement Strategies to Foster Innovation

Here are practical strategies Sarah implements to foster a creative workplace culture:

1. Structured Time for Divergent and Convergent Thinking:

  • Divergent time is dedicated to open-ended brainstorming, idea generation, and exploration without judgment. Sarah incorporates this into meeting agendas and encourages activities like brainwriting and the sailboat technique.
  • Convergent time is for narrowing options, making decisions, and crafting action plans. Sarah ensures clear transitions between these modes to optimize creativity and productivity.
  • Sarah has experimented with ways to identify these times, with a colour changing LED light, a change in background music, and simply a sign on the whiteboard reminding the team that they are diverging or converging.

2. Embrace Creative Problem-Solving Techniques:

  • Sarah introduces divergent thinking exercises (e.g., brainwriting, sailboat technique, and others found at Atlassian – Divergent Thinking Exercises) to break out of conventional thinking patterns and spark innovative ideas. She mixes up the activity to try to honour each person’s style of brainstorming. Some people prefer to ideate alone in silence, others in groups with a lot of dialogue.

3. Prioritize Psychological Safety:

  • Sarah actively builds a climate where team members feel safe to share ideas, take risks, and experiment without fear of ridicule or negative consequences. She models vulnerability by sharing her own failures and fosters trust and open communication.

4. Model Vulnerability:

  • Sarah shares her own failures and challenges with her team, demonstrating that mistakes are a natural part of the creative process and a valuable learning tool. This normalizes risk-taking and encourages experimentation.

5. Articulate a Clear Vision for Creativity:

  • Sarah explicitly communicates the organization’s commitment to creativity and innovation, outlining the new direction and approach. This provides clarity and purpose, motivating team members to contribute their ideas and embrace new ways of thinking.
  • The expectation to be creative is one of the 3 keys identified by Gallup for a creative organization (that increases employees who are empowered to innovate to 70% from 20%)

6. Set Expectations and Time for Creativity:

  • Sarah adopts the Gallup approach, actively expecting and encouraging creative ideas from her team. She allocates dedicated time for creative thinking and problem-solving, ensuring that it’s not just an afterthought but a core part of the work culture.
  • Leading with a culture of iteration, Sarah tries different approaches to actively recruit ideas from her team. She is willing to take a risk and fail, and also models this mindset for her team to follow suit. The suggestion box was well received, but the bring your pet to work day did not go as planned (Luckily, the bird escaped to the light fixture and was recovered without incident).

7. Embrace Diversity and Cross-Functional Collaboration

  • Sarah knows that a diverse team is important for innovation. Shared and homogenous experiences lead to a homogenous solution. In addition to welcoming diverse thought, cultural experience and backgrounds, Sarah takes time to invite other stakeholders to meetings to get an outsider’s perspective. Although the outsider does not always provide a groundbreaking insight, they can give a perspective that is unique. Research shows that having an outsider in the room (even if they don’t provide a meaningful contribution) improves decision making.
  • Sarah invites team members from other groups in the organization to shed light on their perspective, and to build a community of collaboration. Her team knows they have her support to reach out to other teams to clarify a problem or get some ideas.
  • Sarah has encouraged her team to try new tools to improve their workflow and ideas. With cybersecurity in mind, her team will use ChatGPT as a brainstorming partner to create new ideas.

Check out this video I did with Fuat Ramazanov for how you can use AI as your “outsider” perspective

Employee Engagement Increases Motivation

Team members, once hesitant, now confidently took ownership of ideas. They embraced the Gallup approach, where creativity wasn’t merely encouraged—it became a vibrant, thriving expectation.

Sarah had sown seeds of transformation, and the team blossomed into a garden of boundless imagination, where every voice contributed to a symphony of innovation. (Ok, Google Bard, you are really stuck on symphonies and lighting things on fire. Fine, I’ll leave it in.)

As the culture of creativity blossomed, Sarah witnessed a remarkable transformation in the team’s overall well-being.

Meetings once marked by subdued voices and weary expressions now pulsed with vibrant energy. Team members arrived with a newfound enthusiasm, eager to share ideas and tackle challenges. Laughter echoed through the hallways more often, and smiles lingered on faces long after meetings ended.

Sick days became a rarity, replaced by a collective resilience that embraced setbacks as opportunities for growth. The team found joy in experimentation, unburdened by the fear of failure. They embraced challenges with newfound confidence, knowing their ideas would be heard and valued. This sense of psychological safety extended beyond the workplace, fostering a greater sense of balance and fulfillment in their personal lives.

Sarah had not only ignited a creative spark, but she also nurtured a culture of well-being that empowered the team to thrive, both personally and professionally. Her team is still unnaturally enthusiastic about Taco Thursday, but instead of envying the energy, she has brought Taco Tuesday energy into the boardroom. With tacos, of course. On Thursday.

What are the benefits of an innovative workplace culture? 

As Sarah’s team embraced a culture of creativity, remarkable shifts unfolded, echoing research on psychological safety and well-being:

1. Enhanced Collaboration and Trust:

Team members shed their inhibitions and actively sought one another’s perspectives. They built upon each other’s ideas, fostering a sense of shared ownership and collective achievement.

2. Heightened Mindfulness and Presence:

The team became more attuned to the present moment, engaging in deep listening and thoughtful reflection. This mindfulness at work led to more insightful contributions and a greater appreciation for diverse viewpoints.

3. Increased Resilience and Growth Mindset:

Setbacks were no longer viewed as failures but as opportunities for learning and growth. The team embraced challenges with curiosity and a willingness to experiment, leading to more innovative solutions. Check out Amy Edmondson’s book on Failure – The Right Kind of Wrong.

4. Elevated Job Satisfaction and Personal Well-Being:

The team’s newfound sense of purpose and belonging extended beyond the workplace, fostering greater satisfaction in their personal lives, because they experienced a deeper sense of meaning and fulfillment, leading to overall well-being.

5. Cultivated Inner Resources for Well-Being:

The team discovered that creativity and well-being were not merely external goals, but internal resources that could be cultivated through intentional practices like mindfulness and self-reflection.

Sarah’s new leadership had sparked a transformation that went far beyond enhanced creativity. Finally, she had ignited a culture that nurtured both professional growth and personal well-being, demonstrating the profound impact that psychological safety can have on individuals and teams alike.

How Long Does Innovation Take?

Sarah’s journey to cultivate creativity wasn’t a single meeting’s triumph but a patient unfolding of transformation.

With each gathering, she nurtured a culture that sought abundance in ideas, valuing quantity as the path to quality. No suggestion was too outlandish, no thought too imperfect. This consistent invitation to share, without fear of judgment, gradually eroded walls of apprehension. The irony is inescapable. Her willingness to face failure and judgement from her team and senior management was the answer to drive a culture of innovation and ideation.

Over time, the team embraced the freedom to explore without inhibition. Eventually, the power of psychological safety gave them permission to try, because mistakes weren’t failures but stepping stones towards innovation.

As Gallup research reveals, this cultural shift unlocked a remarkable change: the percentage of employees who felt empowered to innovate soared from 20% to 70%.

Final Thoughts

You must peel off layers of unconscious behavior to engage a creative culture in your workplace, but it doesn’t have to be rocket science.
Use the Gallup criteria as a North Star against which to measure your organization.

Ask yourself, do your employees

  1. Have freedom to take risks
  2. Have time to be creative
  3. Have the expectation to be creative.

If not, consider yourself already behind the 8 ball in the drive to remain agile, relevant, and a competitive employer in 2024 and beyond.

Also, remember Taco Thursday. The lesser known Taco Celebration Day.

*Quick note – When I wrote this article, Google Bard was only available as a test from the US, so I had to use a VPN. I have since moved to Google Gemini, which is available in Canada, yay!