hands holding gears up as a teamwork and innovation concept

Every company wants innovation in order to create a competitive edge in the market. When polled, 70% of executive leaders think innovation is the most important thing for a business to develop. In the same study, 65% of those leaders had very little confidence that the decisions being made were leading to innovation. Most of the strategic planning a company does focuses on forecasting sales and budgeting. So, if we’re not planning for innovation or creating a culture that generates it, then what are we supposed to do?

Get ready for a crazy idea.

We, as leaders, do not need to be “doing” anything. Leaders get into a mindset that all answers must come directly from their brains or the whole organization will fall apart. While leaders are 100% necessary in a successful business, innovation actually comes from the collective minds in the organization. When hiring, you’re looking for the “best fit,” right? So, why are you hiring the “best fits” and not tapping into the power and expertise each brings to the team?

As leaders, you want to be the communication hub that your team works around and through. You want to remove roadblocks, encourage performance, and guide the team into high, autonomous performance. High performing teams do not just sprout out of nowhere. The key job a leader does is ensure their team can not only do their jobs and meet goals, but to create a culture where ideas keep flowing that creates efficiencies, better products, or services, and allow their teams to be innovative.

Sounds scary, doesn’t it? Letting the team you hired take the lead on innovation? It’s certainly not a common idea or the most comfortable idea for managers. While every team has people that have performance issues, the leader’s job is to find ways to ensure the whole team is working toward success, including those that may need a little extra help. This performance relationship really is grounded in something that we, as people, do not always intuitively understand: trust.

Building Trust

Trust is never given to the leader with a job promotion. A title and authority may be provided, but the trust you have with each person on that team is earned. Leaders should switch focus from controlling an outcome or goal to building mutual trust instead. People want to do their jobs. People want what they do 40 hours (or more) a week to matter. If a leader truly works on gaining trust, then loyalty, high performance, and innovation will be able to grow in an environment more favorable to those ideals.

Trust is easy to build.

“Say what you mean and mean what you say.”

As a leader, communication and transparent intentions will take you a long way with your team. Speaking to your team about performance, goals, and innovative ideas should not feel like a pop quiz to your team. They should not feel like you’re about to give them a F because they didn’t have time to prepare. While a lot of the responsibility for doing a job is on the individual, a leader should always provide clear communication and expectations. If the goals for the team shift, tell them.

But, most importantly if something isn’t working smoothly, listen to their concerns or ideas. Keep an open-door policy. You will be surprised what has been kept in people’s head because there wasn’t an opportunity to express it. While there should always be work boundaries, innovation will come naturally if provided enough space to be said. Clear communication and sticking to your promises as a leader are both key in earning trust with your teams.


So. You’ve communicated, lived up to your commitments and promises, and kept your team together. That means you’re well on the way to having a team with an innovative mindset. But there is a third ingredient when cooking up innovation: motivation. Motivation is the third ingredient because you can’t motivate people that don’t trust you. And you can’t earn trust without communication and building strong relationships. Once you have built a foundation of trust, you can keep building on that good work by thinking, “What motivates my team?” Believe it or not, some things can motivate one person, but is a discouragement to another. Sounds nuts, but it’s true. Let’s break down motivation a bit further.

Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation means the person is motivated by something inside themselves. Typical stereotype for this is the “self-starter.” But even self-starters need motivation and recognition from their leaders. Those intrinsically motivated are running off something.

Below are some of the reasons a self-starter may be using to fuel their work:

  • Achievement-based motivation
  • Competence-based motivation
  • Attitude-based motivation
  • Power-based motivation

Having open conversations will allow you to uncover a person’s basis for motivation. By supporting these motivations and rewarding based on what drives them, then you can continue to build performance and open the floor for innovation that will give your company or department a competitive edge.

Ideas to reward those intrinsically motivated:

  • Title or seniority change
  • Merit recognitions
  • Fair pay in coordination with additional responsibilities
  • Inclusion in change initiatives
  • Training others in skills
  • Manager conversations revolving around goals

Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivation means the person is motivated by something outside of themselves. You find a lot of this in sales-based roles that are performance driven and rewarded by commissions. Although this is a different kind of motivation, it will still need to be supported to open the door for innovation.

Below are the types of extrinsic motivation that may be fueling the person:

  • Reward-based motivation
  • Affiliation-based motivation
  • “Fear”-based motivation
  • Power-based motivation

While the extrinsically motivated individuals may need an outside push, providing the right goals, support, and incentives will allow high team performance. By matching the reward to the motivation, you will be able to unlock performance and innovation that may have been stuck inside a team member’s brain.

Ideas to reward those extrinsically motivated:

  • Bonuses and raises.
  • Merit recognitions
  • Working with people in the company that are influential
  • Clear expectations and actions if expectations are met or not met
  • New titles or more senior position
  • Manager conversations revolving around goals

Sparking Innovation

You’re probably thinking, “I just wanted to learn about innovation. What does any of this have to do with innovation?” Let’s connect the dots.

You cannot earn trust with your team unless you have open, clear communication and transparent expectations for performance. You also need to ensure you live up to whatever commitments made to the team. Business changes, so importance of goals may shift, but being open and transparent will go a long way to helping the team feel included and a part of any goal.

You cannot motivate your team unless you have trust. You can try, but your attempts will likely be met with disinterest or outright lack of engagement. Could you really blame them? By building trust through clear communication and transparency, you’ll be able to motivate your team with either intrinsic or extrinsic reward.

You cannot create innovation unless you are able to fuel your team members through motivation. Motivation and a system of meaningful rewards will unlock innovation. People will want to share inefficiencies and possible solutions, to inform you of roadblocks and maybe even a way to remove the issue. They will want to do more and be more successful. People will freely give loyalty. Your team will want to have synergy and high performance. Of course, as a leader, you will need to steer the ship and keep business goals top of mind, but your focus should be creating a team and a work culture that not only allows an opportunity for innovation but encourages shared responsibility in accomplishing business goals that align with the company’s major initiatives.

The leader does not make innovations. The leader does not have to “do” anything, except foster an open, inclusive work culture and motivate their team to not only meet goals, but exceed expectations with innovation regarding improved processes, products, services, and eliminate inefficiencies. Sounds like a wonderful world, right? It’s completely attainable. This is within the grasp of all leaders and businesses.

The Innovation Equation

Clear communication + transparent expectations/goals = Trust

Trust + Appropriate Rewards = Motivation

Trust + Motivation = Innovation