Research by Accenture has found that almost all CEOs peg their organization’s long-term success on innovation. Yet fewer than a fifth see a payoff to the very substantial investments they’ve made [See the Accenture article here].

What’s going on? I think it’s a basic disconnect. Leaders seek to nurture innovation by unrolling big, ambitious initiatives—for instance, investing in technology or hiring high profile innovation leaders. What they’re ignoring is the day-to-day practices that would more directly and clearly encourage innovation throughout an organization.

Research in Motion stands as a cautionary tale. Despite highly intelligent and skilled senior management, the maker of the Blackberry today has an uncertain future, thanks in part to a culture that, as one anonymous employee put it, “does not allow us to speak openly without having to worry about the career-limiting effects” [click here to read article ]. It’s hard to innovate well if employees can’t say what they really think.

Like so much else about a company’s performance, innovation can be fostered by encouraging desirable behaviors and discouraging undesirable ones. How can we make sure managers listen to new ideas? How can we get people to execute better on adoption? How do we get people to feel comfortable coming forward with new ideas? How do we get leaders to take risks on new ideas? And since risk entails some degree of failure, how do we encourage the right failures and discouraged inappropriate failures, without sending mixed messages?

These are behavioral questions, and they are well answered by applied behavioral science. When we use established frameworks and tools to address innovation on the more concrete (and perhaps less glamorous) level of everyday behavior, we start to get traction. Innovation isn’t just something trendy to talk about and invest in and then be done with; it’s a set of practices we must bring ourselves and our organizations to do each and every day.

As an example, innovation leaders like Google, IDEO, and Facebook are moving ahead in part by focusing systematically on a specific behavior, the skillful management of employee dialogues. Instead of initiating a conversation by asking how a team “could” or “should” approach a problem in an imaginative way, managers at these companies ask: “How might we?” “Can” or “should” turns on the critical, judgmental side of peoples’ brains, prompting evaluation of ideas prematurely. “Might” gives people permission to consider what’s possible.

Here are some other behaviors that, when encouraged systematically throughout an organization, helps turn employee dialogues toward innovation:

  • Reward the behavior of “daring to try” something new or different.
  • Don’t “shoot the messenger.” Reward people for sharing “good” information, even if the news they are sharing is bad.
  • Actively encourage employees to spend time broadening their understanding of (a) how your organization works across functions and Business Units and (b) trends and changes in your industry
  • Reframe failures and mistakes as learning opportunities

We can address behaviors at a number of different points in the innovation process and among a number of different players. Let’s dedicate ourselves to making our organizations the exciting, dynamic, vibrant places they are capable of becoming. By attending to behavior that matters most as far as innovation is concerned, we can truly unleash the creative energies of our people, and in turn unlock vast new stores of value.

Imagine that–an investment in innovation that reliably delivers!