Women sometimes hesitate to be innovative, but as leaders or aspiring ones, it’s important to develop this skill to add value to your organization. With the right training and support, you can overcome your fear, embrace your creative side, and learn how to be an innovator.
“Men and women can be equally innovative, although they tend to have different styles,” says Erin Cox, an AMA facilitator and the owner of EnterTRAINing International. Men more often will work to solve a problem that already exists, she says, while women may work on trying to prevent a problem from happening or on enhancing an existing product.
A culture of innovation
Presenting new ideas to your team can be scary, Cox acknowledges. “Women have more of a fear of being judged or of being wrong…or of being laughed at,” she notes. But working in a culture that encourages and even insists on regular innovation from employees—a culture that encourages ideas and discourages criticism from peers and supervisors—helps women get over their nervousness and start to add their ideas, she says.
A company that supports innovation should also embrace the truth that ideas often fail. “You can’t let failure slow you down,” she says.
Cox offers a few tips on becoming a better innovator:
Widen your definition of “innovation.” Innovation isn’t just for engineers, and it’s not just about creating a brand-new product. Innovation can mean improving an existing process by coming up with a new or different way to do it, Cox points out.
Brainstorm about what needs to be improved or introduced. Define what in your life or job you want to make better, and then use an “ideating technique.” This gets your brain moving to the next level, Cox says. Think about how your product or process could be different. What would separate it from everyone else’s product in the field? “I encourage people to go to almost the point of unbelievable,” she adds.
At Nestlé Purina, where Cox was an innovation trainer for several years, every individual in the company was tasked with innovation—with offering ideas for change, big or small, on a regular basis. Someone happened to be talking about a Happy Meal, and suddenly one of the employees had a brainstorm—put a dog toy inside a bag of dog food, Cox says. This very simple change made the product stand out.
Regularly practice ideation, either by yourself or in a group. Cox often has clients use the innovation technique “This makes me think of…”:
- Start with an ordinary object—a pencil, for example
- Write down anything that comes to mind about it (examples: wood, lead, rubber, eraser, writing utensil, sharp)
- Choose one word from what you just wrote, such as “sharp”
- Apply that word to your life or whatever you’re trying to innovate
Cox offers examples of what might emerge from using the word “sharp” for personal improvement:
- I could clean out my closet and buy a few statement pieces to become a sharper dresser
- I could read trade magazines or take classes to sharpen my skills and knowledge in my field
- I could rewrite my resume in case I want to make a sharp turn in my career
“People get scared of the word ‘innovation.’ But it’s often just a little tweak,” Cox says. With practice, you can become an innovator full of great ideas.
Improving your innovation skills is one benefit of AMA’s new Women’s Leadership Certificate Program. Created by AMA’s Women’s Leadership Center, this unique 2-day program provides women with the knowledge and tools to present themselves as present and future leaders.