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Creating a Culture of Innovation

We’ve all heard the cliché that there is no i in team. However, there are two of them in innovation, and to do our best work, we need all staff members to understand how they are an important part of the innovation process. Creating a culture of innovation is vital for those seeking to move their office forward.

Unfortunately the word innovation can conjure up competing perceptions of either a useless corporate buzzword or a solo, untouchable leader. Neither of these stereotypes leads to productive output for your office.

The idea of innovation-as-buzz speak is understandable, but having a strong vision and open dialogues with your staff can help overcome this reaction. And while leadership is an important element of an innovative workplace, it has been demonstrated that having an innovative culture is just as important.

Thus, the challenge for career services leaders is to first have a vision for the role of innovation in your office and then help each member of the team understand how their approach to their work can contribute to a culture of innovation. This post will provide three recommendations to engage your staff to help build such a culture.

The value of being explicit

Studies have shown that giving explicit instructions for people to “be creative” will increase their number of novel solutions to problems. While I cannot find similar research for encouraging people to be innovative, the parallel should hold, and you can begin to develop a culture of innovation by simply being explicit with your team that you want to build one.

Here are a few examples of ways you might do that:

  • If a staff member comes to you with a problem, a natural tendency is to ask them for an accompanying solution. Rather than asking, “How should we should proceed,” consider replying instead “What do you think is the most innovative path forward?”

  • During planning meetings, tell your team you are interested in innovative and forward-thinking programs and services.

  • Use innovation-related language in your vision/mission/values statements.

  • If you have an ideas board or parking lot, reward the most innovative suggestions with public praise, even if they are not put into the implementation pipeline.

  • Applaud each member’s contribution to innovative efforts, not just the person advancing the idea.

Assess and celebrate a breadth of skills

It is unclear if this tale is true or not. But, the story goes that President John F. Kennedy was visiting NASA Headquarters for the first time and during a tour of the facility encountered a janitor in the hallway. The President inquired what the janitor did at the facility, and the janitor is said to have responded, “helping put a man on the moon.” While this story is meant to indicate the depth of the belief in the mission, it can similarly be a metaphor for a variety of skill sets are needed for innovation.

Ten Faces of Innovation is a decade-old book by Tom Kelley (of IDEO fame) that has had a tremendous impact on how I view both organizational culture and the innovation process. In the book, Kelley highlights that while we might often think of the visionary leader or the creative idea generator as the key to innovation, in reality it takes an ecosystem of work styles to create an innovative group. He notes that everyone from those with institutional memory (the storyteller) to those who know how to navigate bureaucracy (the hurdler) and those concerned with how the furniture is arranged in the lobby (the experience architect) are necessary to advance an innovative agenda, if appropriately contextualized and deployed.

As a leader, you will want to recognize this reality with your team. Make sure to bring everyone into the innovation process by helping them discover how their particular skills are related, so that everyone from your student front-desk assistant to your top leader can see how they are contributing to an innovative culture. This will require both self-assessment and organizational assessment, but will pay off as innovation moves from an individual operation to an organizational strategy.

Don’t forget to hire for it

It is natural for a hiring manager to look at the core competencies needed for a given role during the processing of hiring and selection. But, for those seeking to build an innovative organization, are you including a wide range of associated skills during your process?

As you examine your job descriptions and give charges to your search committees, think broadly about what may be lacking in your innovation ecosystem and make it integral to the hire. If your team has plenty of idea generators, but not enough collaborators, or many storytellers, but not enough experimenters, seek to fill those gaps. Emphasize that a forward-thinking mindset is an important aspect for those joining the organization.

You can also probe on a few global traits during the interview, including:

  • Describe a recent failure for us (testing for resilience)

  • Tell us how you would feel if one of your favorite projects was being discontinued (testing for comfort with change)

  • What is the biggest problem you worked on in your last role, and how did you approach selecting a solution or path forward? (testing for risk or complexity)

Make sure that innovation is everyone’s job, and that each person receives the same kind of feedback, encouragement, resources, and evaluation as they would for other mission-critical aspects of their work.

You will want to harness the creativity of all of your staff members in order to advance your office and our profession.

Gary Alan Miller currently serves as Executive Director of the Career Center at Hofstra University. Gary has provided keynote, preconference, plenary and breakout sessions at NACE, SoACE, EACE, NCACE, SCACE, GACE, NASPA, MNYCCPOA, and MCEEA. In October 2009 he gave one of the earliest career services association keynotes on the use of social media in career development for NCCDA. Gary was a finalist for the 2013 NACE Innovation Excellence Award in Research for a study completed with his former-UNC colleague Katherine Nobles on career center innovation. Resultantly, the pair contributed a chapter in Leadership in Career Services: Voices From the Field (2013, Contomanolis and Steinfeld). In 2015, he and Katherine published an eBook titled Collaboration in Career Services. Connect with him on Twitter.

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