Innovation culture. Everyone wants one … but how do you get it? Some companies believe that an innovative culture is something that can be mandated from the top. Worse yet, other companies believe that with enough innovation posters, mascots, and free-thinking toy filled events, an innovation culture will naturally result. Building an innovative culture is a slow transformative process, especially for a company with years of “less-than-innovative” history. Companies that were born “innovative” like Google are the exception rather than the rule. But the good news is that an innovation culture can be built, if you focus on the critical foundational elements. Culture is not an input to innovation – an innovative culture is the result of a patient, deliberate program of building the capacity for innovation within a company. The crucial building blocks of an innovation culture are training, engagement, communication, and metrics.
There are certainly “born” innovators (Steve Jobs comes to mind), but they are few and far between. The good news is that innovation can be taught. New perspectives are required to break free from the industry and company orthodoxies, and to perceive the world with new lenses. Teaching employees how to recognize orthodoxies that can be challenged and to identify disruptive changes on the horizon likely to change industries are two important ways to start to create a questioning,innovative culture. Seeking true customer insight by observing and talking with customers (rather than reading research reports) to understand their needs and wants (beyond the obvious) can also be taught. Training should then include how to put these insights together to imagine new solutions, products or services … in a way that makes use of a “standard” template to describe the offering and other key components of the business. In our experience, employees want to be innovative, but often lack the tools and training to contribute. Innovation training also has the advantage of beginning to seed the language of innovation and a common language is an important cultural component.
So how do you best engage everyone in the organization to use these new tools and training to contribute relevant new ideas? Engagement requires inspiration, trust, transparency, and follow-through. Inspire employees by focusing the innovation on issues of importance to them and to the company. Provide clear and transparent decision criteria and feedback – employees don’t remain engaged for long when they sense ideas are falling into an electronic black hole or have become hostage to an invisible political process. Provide constructive feedback to employees on ideas to promote learning – and to get better ideas in the future. And build more than the “suggestion box” – create the backend of the process before the front end is launched. Make sure the “winning” ideas are carefully nurtured and create the infrastructure for experimentation and launch.
Use new or existing platforms to communicate your definition and goals of innovation. Set the “language” of innovation to instill it as a regular component of your corporate vocabulary. Take the opportunity to celebrate the innovation heroes – not only those who have imagined and launched new products and services, but also those whose innovations or experiments have “failed” to reinforce the message that smart failure is expected in an innovative company. Make sure that executive communications always involve an element of innovation. Assure employees that innovation is a key part of executive meetings and discussions. Keep the communication real and honest; platitudes don’t often inspire innovation.
It may seem odd that metrics are an important part of building the innovative culture. But metrics are important to track and assess your journey to building the innovation culture. Use “cultural” indicators to assess things such as engagement, awareness of the innovation program and process, and number of employees trained in innovation techniques. Use “pipeline” measures like number of ideas submitted, number of experiments in progress, and number of new offerings launched to monitor the health of your pipeline and to set goals.
The four elements detailed above will get your organization started on the path to building the innovative culture. But at the same time, you should take a hard look across the organization to understand what innovation impediments or roadblocks exist today and make sure you address these in your training, engagement,
communication, and metrics. Is there a rampant fear of failure in your organization? Then publish loudly and often personal stories of capable innovators who
have valiantly tried and failed. Does your current metrics system implicitly encourage more-of-the-same rather than innovation? Take a hard look at these
metrics and find ways to also encourage innovation. Do employees feel that management doesn’t really support innovation? Then, instead of issuing more innovation platitudes, management should communicate details of how they are becoming more innovative and how agenda is an important agenda item in all executive
It has been said the organizational culture is reflected in the language, stories, and heroes of the company. By training your innovators, engaging all employees, communicating the stories of innovation and assessing your progress you will have the common language of innovation, stories to tell, and heroes to celebrate.
Amy Muller, Director