Stop me if you have heard this before, a sales leader is frustrated with how their folks don’t “think outside the box” or “embrace innovation” or my favorite “connect the dots”. My answer to this is most sales leaders don’t reward creativity, that “box” you talk about that your sales people need to “think outside” is your own aversion to creativity.
Think about it. When a creative idea comes from your team – do you listen to the idea or do you pay more attention to the vehicle presenting the idea. The more unproven the person presenting the idea is the more risky it will be for the VP to back it, support it and embrace it to the masses.
Everyone in theory wants innovation, but most also want to remain in control of what they are comfortable with – being uncomfortable is after all … uncomfortable.
If the consequence of failing is met with the positive support to do it again, people will stick to innovating, working hard to improve and to get the big reward. If everyone is anxious about the consequences of failure then they will feel more comfortable doing what they’ve always done, how they’ve always done it, and reap the same results – ultimately never realizing their own potential.
This behavior inevitably creates a self-defeating pattern. If the company doesn’t create an environment where people can take risks and occasionally fail, then innovation will be stifled. If innovation doesn’t occur, the company won’t grow, the team won’t succeed past expectations and the result will ultimately lead to monotony at best. This environment will create anxiety to the point that the cycle will repeat until the fear of failing ends up hindering progress to a point that failure is inevitable. This type of failure cripples the ability to get back up.
What can you do as a manager to create an environment that fosters innovation?
1) Evaluate. Look at your team and assess how often people are avoiding risks in their current position. Utilize ways to gauge the overall feeling of your employees by open team meetings or one-on-ones to find out if people are holding back ideas and are caught up in the fear of failing. If it’s happening, talk about how you can improve and what you can learn from their innovations and risks as well as how it can propel their career forward. Everyone wants a vision of being greater than they currently are – it’s even more powerful if that vision is shared.
2) Encourage and Share Ideas. If you create an environment that is safe for an employee to share ideas, concerns or feedback without fear of retribution or a negative impression people will start looking for ways to improve the company or team. They all talk about what needs improvement as it is, so you might as well make it constructive for you. The key is to make it comfortable for people to share their ideas; once they are on the table you can choose the most effective ones to implement.
3) Experiment and Commit. Take a chance on some ideas and commit to them for a certain period. Understand that the best ideas are not the most obvious ones so give them a shot. Don’t be one of those VP’s who say they’re trying the new idea but don’t commit to it – your team will see through it and it will backfire, so you’ll be worse off for even saying you’re doing it. Make it explicit that failure is acceptable as long as something is learned. You learn more in failure than you do in success.
4) Reward for the risk, not the result. Your people need to be rewarded and reinforced for taking risks, so don’t give mixed message on whether or not it’s acceptable. If you want more risk taking, reduce the conflicting signals and create an environment where the benefits of taking a risk outweigh the fear of failure.
If you are looking to manage “C” talent and hope to work at a company that builds a product or service that sells itself then don’t pay attention to any of this – sit back and watch your skills rot. If you are looking to manage “A” talent, regardless of what you sell, you need to embrace the idea of fostering creativity, innovation and the industry’s next Sales leaders. Let our future leaders breathe!