By Bridget McCrea

A primer on how to introduce innovation into your corporate culture without alienating employees, suppliers, and customers in the process.

It's no secret that words like "change," "innovate," and "transform" tend to make people nervous. In fact, these words can put fear in the hearts of executives, employees, suppliers, and even customers – particularly those that operate with the mindset of, "If it's not broken, don't fix it." This mentality can keep distributorships on the hamster wheel for decades, particularly in family-run firms where such inertia is seen as a sign of loyalty to and respect for the family name.

But it's 2016, and it's time to rock the apple cart a little by introducing some innovation into the mix. With technology changing at the speed of light, new products and solutions hitting the market at a faster pace, and customer preferences and needs constantly in flux, leading distributorships know that there's no room for complacency in today's business world.

"If your company has been managed the same way from generation to generation," says Karin Hurt, CEO of Let's Grow Leaders and a keynote speaker, leadership consultant, and author, "and if you are not open to fresh and innovative ideas, then the competitor that is innovating will have the competitive advantage." Hart cautions distributors about using annual sales growth as a measure of greatness – or, a sign that innovation isn't necessary.

"A distributorship that's experienced an upward trajectory of solid business results, and that is doing well by industry standards, will probably lack the impetus to innovate or do better," says Hurt. "However, just because something worked in the past doesn't mean it will continue to be effective." As external conditions change, for example, and as suppliers or customers alter their own cultures and how they do business, the distributor that can't adapt may be left out in the cold.

Focusing on Innovation and Agility
But what happens when innovation and change threaten to throw employees and business partners into a tailspin? In other words, how can an electrical distributor "keep the peace" while also developing a corporate culture that's focused on innovation and agility?

It starts with acknowledging the fact that change isn't fun for anyone. "People like their comfort zones, but when they stay in those zones they miss out on opportunities," says Faisal Hoque, a serial entrepreneur, founder of SHADOKA, and author of Everything Connects: How to Transform and Lead in the Age of Creativity, Innovation, and Sustainability. "When you attempt something different, people get scared."

Whether they are small in scale (a new piece of business software) or large in size (an entirely new corporate mission statement), the changes can impact a wide swath of key people. With this in mind, Hoque sees clear communication as a foundational tool for companies that want to innovate without alienating any of those individuals.

"Making sure people understand the purpose of the change and innovation is extremely important," says Hoque. "There's no way to start working towards a common goal until everyone understands what it is and what's expected of them to help achieve it."

For example, he says motivational leaders should be approachable and open to dialogue "so that everyone they're trying to motivate can ask questions and share their own ideas." This, in turn, helps instill a culture of innovation across the distributorship and ensures that everyone actively participates in the process (and doesn't just have new "rules" and "orders" dictated to them).

"This communication style means not just clearly articulating your message, but also listening actively—without bias or judgment and with a real willingness to consider a different perspective," Hoque continues. "It's about trading messages respectfully and accurately, not just delivering them. Paying heed to their factual as well as emotional content is what allows for better mutual understanding."

Engage their Minds, Hearts, and Spirits
According to Hurt, clear communication helps to engage people's "minds, hearts, and spirits" and infuses a feeling of collaboration and interaction into the workplace – where handing down orders is an ineffective way to get people on board with innovation.

"Senior leaders may already have their brains wrapped around the change, but they also have to let people catch up to them to achieve that buy-in," says Hurt. The communication should be multifaceted and taking place at corporate meetings, during casual conversations, at staff meetings, and in conference calls. "The idea is to get people grounded on the 'why' of the innovation," says Hurt, "and understanding that your intentions are good and well thought-out."

In some cases, "testing" innovation is another good way to introduce it without freaking out your entire labor pool. Turn it into a contest or do it for sport – and make sure you reinforce any change with the proper training – says Hurt, and before long the innovation will be a natural part of your corporate culture (or, if it doesn't work out as planned, you can move on to the next idea). "Tell workers that you just need them to try this out for one day," Hurt says. "If it works, then the obvious question will be:  Okay, if you can do this for one day, then why can't you do it every day?"

Finally, Hurt cautions distributors not to make innovation into a "top down" directive. "When people feel like they have to do something – and when they weren't involved or communicated with during the initial planning stages – then you have compliance, not commitment," Hurt warns. "Instead, create an atmosphere where you are truly listening to the genuine feedback of your employees, and factoring in their concerns to the equation."


SIDEBAR

Leading Roles, Not People

In Big Idea 2015: Rethinking Leadership for Creativity & Innovation, Hoque says that in order to connect individuals to the organization for creativity and innovation, leaders need to realize the following three key points:

Leaders curate talent. Building an organization is the gathering of people for a common cause. Gathering the right people together at the right time is curation.

People need freedom. To do their best work, people need to feel like they're able to bring all of their effort into the task, which requires an open, autonomy-oriented culture.

People need structure. This is not anarchy; with freedom comes responsibility. Responsibility can be ensured with both quantitative and qualitative methods—and springs from a thriving culture.

"So how do we lead in ways that help people to grow, rather than tell people to grow? To want to work, rather than have to work?" Hoque asks. "By leading and managing roles, not people."

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McCrea is a Florida-based writer who covers business, industrial, and educational topics for a variety of magazines and journals. You can reach her at bridgetmc@earthlink.net or visit her website at www.expertghostwriter.net.