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How to Break the Routine and Spur Innovation


Q: I find that many on my team take the path of least resistance. I want them to think a little harder, more critically about the tasks in front of them. How can I, as a leader, get my team to think outside the box and perhaps spur some innovation? — Anonymous

Time is fleeting. You have 20 things to do today and it is noon with only four items accomplished. How will you finish the rest along with responding to the 100 urgent emails you received today?

If these or similar thoughts are streaming through your head on a regular basis, then it may be no surprise that your employees take the path of least resistance. Who wouldn’t under the daily barrage of pressures to get things done? People often don’t want to think outside the box because they are too busy trying to keep the box from closing in and crushing them. How then can a team leader spur innovative thinking?

If your employees are under pressure, then not only are they looking for a quick way to check the box, they likely have developed a mind-set that may be difficult to change. It is easy to rely on existing routines to get things done quickly and punch the next item on the list. In this deep groove, people resist responding to requests for innovative ideas.

To be candid, I am no expert on the psychology of changing mind-sets. Nonetheless, I have worked to change my own as well as other people’s mind-sets with some degree of success. Here’s one approach.

First, recognize that changing a mind-set is like competing for a brain’s scarce resource—attention. This competition is between the way the brain currently thinks (processing beliefs, feelings and values) and the way you would like it to think (being creative and innovative to add value). To influence people’s mind-set you have to be willing to compete for their attention.

Second, capture attention by asking questions. Those seeking to improve happiness, for instance, ask questions with positive assumptions behind them. For example, asking “What has my team done recently that I can appreciate?” assumes employees have accomplished something of value. The mere act of authentically asking this question causes your own brain to allocate some of its limited attention, at least for a while, to search for an answer.

Winning the competition, though, requires you to ask such questions every day. Moreover, asking first thing every morning primes the brain to keep reconsidering the questions throughout the day. The more you ask yourself these types of appreciative and positive questions the more you are changing your mind-set.

Third, you can work to change the mind-set of others in a similar way. Ask questions that encourage your team to think outside the box. Or engage in activities like innovation competitions focused on specific challenges that will stimulate new ways of approaching tasks. If narrowly constructed and discussed daily, such challenges can fundamentally transform mind-sets.

For example, you could ask: How can we create new value for our customers? How can we increase quality and lower costs? How can we make our job easier yet deliver more value? What pain for our organization can we discover today and work to remedy? A little training and illustrations of successful answers can go a long way toward helping people think more clearly about what these questions imply.

Discover the questions that work for your team, and encourage employees to ask themselves those questions every morning. If they think outside the box, find a way to reward them. This may be as simple as expressing your appreciation or acknowledging their contribution during a meeting. Asking questions that capture their attention and rewarding new mind-sets offer at least one path to getting your team out of its box.

Please share your own experiences and ideas for stimulating outside-the-box thinking or ask your leadership questions in the comment section below.

Duce a mente

(May you lead by thinking)

Jackson Nickerson is the Frahm Family Professor of Organization and Strategy at the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis, the Associate Dean and Director of the Brookings Executive Education, and a Senior Scholar in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. An award winning researcher and teacher, Jackson specializes in leadership, strategic and critical thinking, leading change, and innovation. While in a prior life he worked for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, he now advises government agencies, not-for profits, and for-profit businesses on ways to improve performance. He is the author of Leading Change in a Web 2.1 World.

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