How to Stimulate Technical Innovation

Estimated reading time: 7 mins

I recently wrote about creating technical innovation in a regimented world. The main thrust of this post covered the issues in building a framework for creativity in organization’s that are very risk-averse and structured around established methods. The framework I discussed is a potential management mechanism for moving ideas from early stages to business initiatives without generating a perception of anarchy or maverickism. This has been proven in 3 organizations I’ve worked in. I hope to extend this proof but I need to hear about the successes and horror stories from other organizations first before I celebrate, or tear it up!

In this post I am going to focus more on the psychological and leadership aspects of innovation. Because its brain-stuff, I’ll caveat what I’m going to write by saying its just my opinion, but also say that its backed up with some more ‘credible’ proof in a recent article on the HBS Working Knowledge website (

So why do I say ‘technical innovation’? Innovation is inherently technical in the broad sense as it involves the creation of new ways of doing things. However, I want to focus on innovation in technical departments, such as engineering and IT. It’s perhaps surprising that technical departments are not always the most innovative; I’ve written about this point several times in the past, and the reason why I think this is the case is because technical departments in the modern business world rely heavily on standards and best-practice, and they have built significant and costly assets (as people, methods and physical assets) to optimize them. They’re a safe bet and a comfort zone. So it’s actually no surprise that these departments resist change and stifle innovation.

The problem as I see it is that without innovation borne out of creativity, technical departments don’t progress unless they’re pushed and the productivity of their workforce is limited. Methods get outdated and physical assets become worn out and irreplaceable. Not having innovation can suck… but it’s seen to be less risky. But then again, what’s more risky than what I’ve described manifesting itself? It’s just not obvious, that’s all.

If you haven’t taken a look at the HBS Working Knowledge article I referenced above, then I’ll tell you that creativity can have a major positive effect on personal motivation, job satisfaction and therefore productivity. Being creative invokes a strong emotional response in workers, most powerful when the effect of the creativity can be observed and celebrated. The most effective of all is when creativity produces a sustained series of incremental improvements and benefits. Think about how you’ve felt in the past when an idea you came up with was adopted and implemented – you probably felt as good if not better about a small idea implemented quickly than a big idea that took a lot of time. Did you also feel a surge of positive energy that motivated you to come up with more ideas or just work harder? The effect on motivation and productivity can last days and even weeks. Moreover I believe that the wave of energy is not always directed inwards but is also directed outwards in order to help other people achieve their own goals and implement their ideas. The consequence can be an exponential tide of energy.

The other effect of this is that confidence increases in the creator which can provide motivation to challenge more deeply ingrained aspects of the status quo. With new found energy and credibility, workers will go deeper into the establishment with ideas for change.

So I think there is a case for creativity and innovation. But how is it stimulated?

In a technical environment, incremental change is most likely the way things happen – we don’t throw away a system every time you have an idea (maybe you would if you were a brand marketer!) So you’d think technical departments are well placed to encourage creativity and innovation. But it’s not always like that, and one reason is that technical departments are generally involved in major programs and large-scale projects, where the effect of a single idea can be lost in the mire. It’s my opinion that this should be avoided. That’s Crap! you might say. I’d answer by saying that we can’t avoid big change programs, but as technical leaders we can decompose them into a series of smaller projects and tasks where the effect of the implementation a single idea can be measured. Sometimes the big picture doesn’t help. It’s really down to how as a leader you break down the deliverables of a program into manageable pieces of work where workers can see how they will add the most value and then observe the impact of their work. Of each piece of work, then, you have the option of performing it using the tried-and-tested methods, or doing something different. The culmination of experience and creativity may often result in a better way. If not then the leader might try the techniques of the ‘helicopter mind’.

Another trick that can aid the stimulation is the sharing of company objectives for the medium and long term, expressed as challenges. A leader might ask how certain objectives could be fast-tracked. Laying down a clear challenge that is at the edge of achievability will create out-of-the box thinking. The leader can ask for a list of candidate technologies, providing the opportunity for technicians to perform some research, and then possibly development into proof of concepts.

The essence of stimulation should be to allow creativity without constraint. Sure, particular technologies from suppliers may go against company policy, but should that constrain the thinking at this stage? An order hasn’t been placed yet! The essence is also about risk-taking. Without risk-taking, we’ll always play safe and preserve the status quo. As I discussed in the previous article on this subject, there needs to be a way of allowing risks to be taken in an environment of safety and non-exposure. Calculated risks create uncertainty and a high-potential of failure, so leaders should allow failure to occur without risk of retribution. Failure creates a learning opportunity which in turn will adapt the ideas on the table. The leader, then, should have good interpersonal skills to the extent that risk-taking is encouraged, done consciously, and failure is seen as a positive outcome. It’s my opinion that conversations on that should start right at the beginning, before real ideas are brought forward.

Stimulation will also be contingent on the causal-effect. Who will put in the effort to generate ideas if it’s believed nothing will happen with them? In the creation of the innovation environment, leaders should declare the possible avenues for the developed ideas to go. Where will they go to be discussed and gain the sponsorship for implementation? For example, the leader could commit to taking ideas to a senior executive. The leader’s credibility in the eyes of her followers will be tested here! It’s vital that this is established upfront.

The last point I’d like to make on stimulation is on reward. Although I mentioned previously that the implementation of creative ideas is a reward (in terms of emotional response) in itself, if you haven’t tasted that then it will be hard to convince technicians to give it a go and take the risks. I’ve found that in only a few cases, explicit and tangible reward is effective (such as cash bonuses). This is a counter-intuitive view I know but I stand by it. What I find works much better is recognition in front of colleagues, superiors in the organization, and a mention in company newsletters and intranets. Often, a plain personal thank you has a noticeable effect and is enough. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a Lightworker or two in your team that will do it just because it’s the right thing to do. Leaders must know how individuals and the team respond to reward to know what will be most effective. Just be wary that the balance must be right in order to reward those who put the effort in and not to reward those that don’t!

The inflow of new ideas can then be managed using something like the framework I discussed previously.

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