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5 tips for sparking innovation in your business

Participation, learning and transparency are key
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Lisa Lindström’s name is one of Europe’s most innovative and creative business leaders. Her international design firm Doberman has been named Sweden’s best workplace and one of the country’s most innovative companies and top web agencies.

She has nearly doubled her workforce since 2012 and opened a successful office in the ultra-competitive New York market that was profitable from day one. She also branched out further by launching an investment company.

She attributes her success to a highly participatory workplace where creativity, learning and work-life balance are supported and “high-fived” at every opportunity. “I always pay attention to what the people who work for me are passionate about and what makes them flourish,” she says. “The only thing I have is people. Those nights when I can’t sleep, I think about losing people, not a client.”

Lindström offered these five tips for entrepreneurs looking to spark innovation in their business.

1. Increase employee participation

Employee participation is at the core of innovation. Your team is a crucial source of new ideas. But employees must feel involved, heard and trusted to bring innovation forward.

At her own firm, Lindström reserves a rotating seat on the executive team for an employee, who gets as much say and access to information as other members. “It delivers on transparency,” she says. “You get a fresh perspective and an ambassador from the employee’s division.”

Lindström also puts all major business decisions to a company-wide vote, including Doberman’s strategic direction and whether to take on large new clients.

“The 100 people I hired are collectively smarter than me,” she says. “People feel they are running the company with me. They can participate and feel they have power to affect their everyday life.”

She respects the vote even when she doesn’t like the idea. Lindström credits the system for two of the company’s most successful ventures—opening its New York office and launching an investment company.

She says she was initially skeptical about both ideas. “I’m so happy I’m not the decision-maker because I would have said no,” she says.

2. Encourage learning

Innovation comes from employees who are constantly learning. Lindström gives her team ample opportunity to learn through training, mentorship and celebrating their curiosity.

Innovation is about creating a safe zone where people dare to show they don’t know something.

This means giving employees leeway to learn on the job, do their work without being micromanaged and make mistakes. “It’s important to give people space to reflect and act,” she says. “Innovation is about creating a safe zone where people dare to show they don’t know something.”

3. Build trust and transparency

Innovation relies on mutual trust and openness. This starts from the top. As a business leader, Lindström says, “I need to reveal more of myself so I can create a circle of trust.”

She is also highly transparent with employees about the company’s budget. She uses creative visuals such as Lego blocks and poker chips to depict different line items in a fun, easy-to-grasp way, so everyone understands the numbers.

4. Foster engagement

Innovation depends on engaged employees. “We ask recruits, ‘Are you here to build the company with me and are you willing to bring all of you?’” she says. “I don’t think we can solve issues if they’re not willing to be brave, take risks, share who they are and bring this to work. You need to have a deep connection.”

Employees also need a good work-life balance in order to maintain their creativity. “They need to have sane hours,” she says.

5. Start small.

It may seem daunting to transform your business culture into an engine of innovation. Starting small can help. Kick things off by thinking of a few simpler initiatives that build inclusion, trust and openness. “Start with small, easy questions, then go to the more important ones,” Lindström says.

Here are five initiatives she suggests:

  • Start with yourself. Think about how you may need to change personally to create an open, participatory culture that unleashes innovation. “It’s about a shift of your identity from being a powerful leader to sharing power and a culture of openness,” Lindström says.
  • Let loose the rule-breakers. Encourage people who break the rules. Don’t stifle them. They may be your best source of ideas.
  • Encourage input from all. Meetings are often dominated by extroverts, who can suffocate idea flow. To tap her team’s full idea-generating capacity, Lindström asks employees to reflect on topics ahead of time and write down thoughts to share with the group.
  • Employee check-ins. You can use meeting time to connect with employees in ways that promote trust and participation. Lindström likes to start meetings by asking how participants are feeling about their day and what steps they can take to increase their happiness.
  • Do something differently. Innovation doesn’t come from people doing the same thing over and over. We often need to be challenged by new approaches and ideas. “The key to innovation is friction,” Lindström says. “We often design an organization around one sort of behaviour. But a combination of behaviours is key.”

This article was written following Lisa Lindström’s discussion with CEOs participating in the BDC CEO Excellence Retreat at an exclusive meet-and-greet session at C2 Montréal.

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