Innovation is like a mirage, a desired state that’s seemingly always just ahead of you but never quite within reach. (Sometimes it might feel like the only place you’ll find innovation is at the top of your to-do list.)
You’re not alone: 66% of respondents in the Deloitte Innovation Survey 2015 said innovation is important for growth, and 96% said that innovation is one of their top five strategic priorities.
Innovation can manifest itself as an improved product, an untapped market, or a simple fix to a nagging problem. And it isn’t just for the plucky start-ups or the deified disruptors; today every business needs to, and can, innovate.
The funny thing is, this elusive element could be hiding in plain sight—namely, in those who aren’t speaking up.
Innovation and speaking up
First, let’s define our terms. “To be innovative,” Psychology Professor Dr. Marshaley J. Baquiano of Georgetown University explains, “is seeing things from new angles, having broad perspectives, taking risks, and being flexible.”
In the context of business, innovation is the combination of creativity and execution. Or, to borrow from the famous innovator Walt Disney, it’s the dreaming and the doing.
Speaking up, or employee voice, can be defined as the communication of ideas, suggestions, or concerns about work-related issues with the intent to improve rather than to merely criticize organizational processes. When employees speak up, they help the group see things from new angles and perspectives, and in turn, help the group find novel solutions.
Research from NLI suggests that speaking up can, among other things, spark and foster innovation. A diversity of perspectives helps to boost efficacy and encourage positive behaviors like creativity, collaboration, and problem-solving—all critical components of innovation.
Speaking up is hard
Organizations are rife with talent, but many get stuck in creating an environment where employees feel empowered to share their creative ideas. Many of us have had the experience personally: of bypassing an opportunity to speak up, or to share an idea, due to fear of repercussions, be they social or professional.
As a result, we may opt to keep our thoughts to ourselves rather than risk the consequences— real or perceived—of an idea flopping. For example, Gallup’s 2017 State of the American Workplace Report found that only 3 in 10 U.S. employees feel that their opinion seems to count at work. Why share your ideas if they aren’t valued? Or worse, if there are repercussions?
What this means is that organizations may only be accessing a fraction of the perspectives and ideas available. As many have said before, this silence is the enemy of innovation.
The Speaking Up Continuum
NLI believes that speaking up occurs on a continuum, consisting of sharing your ideas, questioning other people’s decisions, and challenging other people’s behaviors—the first being the least threatening, and the last being the most.
Organizations can make each type of speaking up easier by focusing on speaking up across the continuum and creating habits that make challenging conversations (and innovation) more likely to occur.
Ultimately, when you empower employees to raise their voices, and share their ideas, you’re creating an environment in which innovation is the natural by-product of collaborative and inclusive discussion.