How to bring out the innovators in your team


How well do you nurture and promote innovation? Is there even a place for it in your team, you might ask? You may be surprised at how much innovative potential is waiting to be unlocked with the right leadership.

Putting aside those grand, Nobel prize-winning visions about what innovation typically entails, in the workplace, innovation can simply be about observing the way our fellow team members work day-to-day and finding those little solutions that can help enhance and improve the efficiency and quality of the work that they do.

While creativity involves the birth of ideas that are new and productive, organisational innovation is essentially the process through which these ideas are successfully applied at work as new products, activities or processes.1, 4

Many teams and organisations value creativity, forward-thinking and innovation, and these are definitely attributes at the foundation of a healthy, profitable workplace.

Extensive organisational research has shown that leadership plays a critical role in driving a workplace culture that supports innovation.1  The results from a seminal study looking at 6000 executives across six years showed that the innovative success of organisations was largely dependent on senior executives of the company being innovators themselves. 4

So what is it that makes innovative ideas successful at work? Here are five research-supported ideas drawn from the science of positive psychology.

1. Encourage employees to use their character strengths

When employees are encouraged to identify and use 4 or more of their natural character strengths as part of their job, their levels of engagement, intrinsic motivation, and positive work experiences increase significantly.7 According to a considerable body of research, an employee’s level of engagement, intrinsic motivation, and positive work experiences are key precursors and drivers of innovative work behaviour.1, 4, 10

In fact, leading organisations such as IBM have embraced the identification and application of employee character strengths in the workplace, using the VIA Institute’s list of character strengths as a springboard8 – these strengths include wisdom, courage, humanity, and so on – all found to be universal and applicable across global populations.9 Thus, to sustain innovation in the workplace, it is critical to identify employees’ character strengths, and then explore ways to align their signature strengths with current tasks and projects.1

2. Accept failure as part of the innovation process

According to Professor of Business Administration, Edward Hess from the University of Virginia, “almost all innovations are the outcome of prior learning from failures.”5 Innovation requires a mindset that embraces the joy of learning and exploration over a fear of failure.5

Carol Dweck, renowned psychology researcher from Stanford University has shown how individuals with a growth mindset (those that believe that their talents can be developed through effort) are far more likely to be innovative than those with a fixed mindset (those who believe their talents are innate gifts). 6 This is because people with growth mindsets worry less about looking smart and put more energy into learning. 6 Thus, one crucial way to foster healthy innovation is to help employees embrace a growth mindset and continually try out small risk experiments, using failure as a platform for learning rather than punishment. 5,6

3.   Give employees autonomy

Another positive way to foster innovation in the workplace is to give your team members autonomy. For innovative solutions to emerge, leaders should define where innovation needs to take place, what the problem is, or what a strategic goal might be – then give employees the freedom to decide how they would like to approach their own work.4 People are more intrinsically motivated, and more creative when they are given autonomy. 10

For instance, Google and 3M’s practice of giving their employees a proportion of their own time to pursue creative interests has resulted in amazing innovative products and applications being developed – such as Gmail!11

4. Allow free time for solitude and day-dreaming

Giving people solitude at work can be key to innovation. When people have structured time to be alone without distractions, they are able to let their mind wander and engage in creative thinking. 2 While daydreaming at work might be seen to be a bad thing, neuroscientists have found that it in fact stimulates the same brain processes involved with imagination and creativity.2  Those sudden connections and insights that are part of creative thinking emerge when people daydream.2 Perhaps it’s for this reason that leading organisation, Intel permitted its employees 4 hours of uninterrupted hours quiet time every Tuesday morning in 2007 to just think – not to send emails or use their phone. 3 As Gandhi once so aptly quoted, “solitude is a catalyst for innovation.”

5.   Encourage collaboration & Reward idea sharing

To successfully foster innovation, collaboration and the free flow of ideas across the organisation needs to be actively encouraged. Bringing together diverse groups of people allows innovative solutions and new ways of thinking to emerge that otherwise would not if everyone worked separately.12,13 Employees should be encouraged to collaborate on problems not just within their own teams, but also across departments and even with external stakeholders such as clients and suppliers.12,13

Importantly, positive feedback should be given to all those who contribute and share ideas, regardless of whether an idea is used or not. Putting in place appropriate systems or procedures to recognise and appreciate employees for their creative efforts is likely to engage and effectively motivate employees, and help build trust in the collaborative process of innovation.4


1. Keith Gatto. Innovation, leadership, and positive psychology. The University of California, Berkeley, 2015. Available from

2.    Carolyn Gregoire. 18 things creative people do differently. Huffington Post, 2014. Available from

3.    Nathan Zeldes. Quiet time and no email day, pilot data is in. Intel IT Peer Network, 2008. Available from

4.    Innovation in Organizations. Illuminations, Australian Psychological Society, 2012. Available from

5.    Edward D. Hess. Creating an Innovation Culture: Accepting Failure as Necessary. Forbes, 2012. Available from

6.    Carol Dweck. What having a growth mindset actually means. Harvard Business Review, 2016. Available from

7. Harzer, C., & Ruch, W., 2012a. When the job is a calling: The role of applying one's signature strengths at work. Journal of Positive Psychology, 7, 362- 371. Available from

8. Managers: Turn Goals into Accomplishments. VIA Institute on Character, 2016. Available from

9. VIA Classification of character strengths. VIA Institute on Character, 2016. Available from

10.  An approach to human motivation and personality. Self-determination Theory Org, 2016. Available from

11.  Kaomi Goetez. How 3M gave everyone days off and created an innovation dynamo. Fast CoDesign, 2011. Available from

12.  Jeff DeGraff. The Good, the Bad, and the Future of Creative Collaboration. Psychology Today, 2015. Available from

13. Nieto, M.J. and Santamaría, L., 2007. The importance of diverse collaborative networks for the novelty of product innovation. Technovation,27(6), pp.367-377. Available from