I first tried my hand at inspiring innovation as Branch Chief of a large Army technology section in Washington, DC.
It was the 1970s and the early days of computer-generated personnel records. Most military officers, who were our customers, did not understand what needed to be done to provide the data for our system. I remember gathering my team and explaining to them that we needed to educate and train our customers about how to give us meaningful and effective information on data punch cards so we could maintain the quality and integrity of recordkeeping.
As I said to them, “You know your customers. I want you to draw on your own creativity to explain to them how our service works, what you can do to help them, and what you need from them.”
That was the only guidance I gave them, and as a result, they each found various innovative ways to communicate with their individual customers. We ended up with the highest levels of accuracy and efficiency that section had ever known. I attribute that all to the creative spark awakened in each member of my team, who found it exciting to reach out and bridge the communication gap about new technology with others who were not at all knowledgeable about how to interface with computer data.
That story reminds me of another thing that makes it easy to invite and inspire innovation: It is fun! People enjoy it when their customers or supervisors encourage them to deliver something and give them the freedom to decide the approach. I believe we all feel a sense of pride and ownership when we are able to apply a personal touch to our work by finding a solution that someone else has not discovered. Employees truly appreciate the opportunity to be “Marco Polo” in their own corner of the universe.
Ultimately, everyone benefits – leaders, employees and customers – when we encourage others to bring forth new ideas. There is no greater leadership skill than empowering employees to find the answers within themselves.