Establishing and maintaining a culture of innovation is not a simple task. Those that achieve this often appear to do so effortlessly; strong, mature cultures of innovation can seem to be fun, exciting, engaging, and rewarding. But it’s not an easy journey. Changing how people work, challenging them to change fundamental behaviors, and moving the titanic ship that is your organization takes time, patience, and effort.
Read on to find out about my 8 key pillars of a strong innovation capability.
People are your most important asset. Each member of your organization holds a unique set of experiences, skills, capabilities, proficiencies, and preferences. They are your competitive advantage; so, the empowerment of those people is crucial. Regardless of rank, each member of your organization must feel like they are not only permitted but encouraged to drive change. Through trust and candid collaboration, clusters of empowered innovators soon form nodes of expert innovation champions that continue the organic proliferation of innovation within your business.
People are also the roots of your innovative culture; the more roots you have, and the stronger they are, the better position you are in to resist external pressures and forces that threaten your efforts.
There is a common misconception around innovation; that it is often sporadic, infrequent, and seemingly without cause or reason. Whilst it’s important to foster this approach within your organizations and allow anyone to get involved, anytime, real innovation happens when it is structured. You must strike a balance between rigor and flexibility; science and creativity. It must be flexible enough to meet the ever-changing needs of your business, but consistent enough that credibility and trust are built.
Your innovation process should also be transparent. Be clear and talk with those involved about what they need to do, when they need to do it, and how they will do it. Whether you’re a frontline worker tentatively sharing your thoughts, or a senior leader reviewing and approving mature ideas; the need is the same. Clarity over responsibility, inputs, outputs, and expectations is key.
Do your teams have the skills to look at challenges and opportunities through a variety of lenses from multiple perspectives? Maybe, maybe not. Regardless, you need to constantly challenge yourself and any potential bias that may come into play here. Make sure you bring in a wide range of people with different levels of experience, skills, knowledge, and training. An intern on their very first day at work has just as much to contribute to ideation as your CEO – so don’t waste the opportunity to leverage and combine different perspectives. What about your offline communities? This collection of experts have a wealth of hands-on experience to offer; and it’s important to involve them even if engagement here presents a challenge in its own right.
Innovation teams also need to empathize with one another. Clear communication and collaboration are essential factors in this and allow you to foster an environment that promotes different thinking. Teams of expert innovators need to be able to color outside of the lines, think outside the box, and explore ideas with freedom and creativity.
4. Open Innovation Model
Harness the power of your full ecosystem. Your people already have a wealth of knowledge, so why not tap into it? People bring more than their “job roles” to work – their personal hobbies, interests, and passions are also vital sources of knowledge. Providing employees with a vehicle through which they may leverage this passion and translate it into lasting, sustained change is immensely satisfying and provides a great sense of personal and professional fulfillment, the likes of which is rarely experienced traditionally.
Why stop there? Your wider network of suppliers, vendors, alliance / Joint Venture partners, academics, and research facilities should be involved too. Pull innovation up through the supply chain and into your ecosystem to further diversify the process and develop novel solutions to your business problems.
5. “The Carrot”
With any change initiative, a major hurdle can be overcoming that classic question “why should I care?”, or put another way, “how will this affect me?”. Human beings are naturally conditioned to stick to the safe comforts of habit; as animals, we like routine.
But breaking from habits is a useful and rewarding experience in and of itself. It often comes with a degree of discomfort, so this should be anticipated and proactively managed. You must ensure that these growing pains are not left unnoticed, and the people feel like their contribution is valued. There’s a big risk here; without this, people will become disillusioned quickly, and even deter their colleagues from getting involved.
How will you reward your teams for their input? How will you recognize those who are helping your organization strive towards success? Well, whilst many companies employ financial or cash incentives successfully, don’t limit yourself here. Have fun with it! Be different, be creative – live and breathe your innovative values of divergence and shake things up a little.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs frames this idea very well. In essence, we simple humans are motivated to “fulfill basic needs before moving onto other, more advanced needs”. Financial rewards largely address our safety needs – which are important but sit low in the hierarchy. For the majority of your teams, financial safety needs would have been largely met – and if not, won’t be addressed with an Amazon gift voucher (as lovely as they are). Better yet, why not satisfy your teams’ needs for appreciation, respect, and status? A small message of appreciation (or a large, public one if you can) goes a very long way. Addressing this need also provides you with some creative options too; why not get your executive team involved to write letters of commendation to your key innovators? How about lunch with the CEO as a token of appreciation?
Finally; think about how this ties into your desired outcomes. It’s not always so simple as rewarding the people with the most ideas. It takes a range of skills to create a culture of innovation, so think about other types of behaviors and attitudes that contribute here. How about that innovation champion that always creates a healthy and challenging debate? Even if they submit no ideas of their own, they lead by example by promoting open discussion and review – and deserve to be recognized.
6. Legendary leadership
Those leaders involved with sponsoring or driving innovation must be active, visible, and engaged. People look to their leaders to understand the status quo; to take inspiration for their behavior and follow in their wake.
For many, innovating is scary. Exposing yourself personally by sharing your thoughts and ideas can be daunting; without a team of leaders that also show they’re doing the same thing, many employees may be a little put off by the prospect of posting their ideas across a large network of strangers. So, get your leadership involved; capture their ideas, involve them in the decision-making process, bring them along to trials; be visible and truly sponsor this change.
It’s also important to remember that engagement from the leadership should be consistent, to mitigate the natural cycle of effort and engagement that every business faces. As an innovation team, you can guide your leaders by setting clear expectations around communications, inputs, and needs.
7. Appetite for risk
This one’s related to the last point; you need to develop an environment where risk is treated a little differently. Your teams should be comfortable in accepting and working with degrees of ambiguity. You won’t have all the answers right away, and the joy of innovating is the journey you take to learn. You will not always arrive at the conclusion you had in mind. You will always learn more along the way.
So, to really get people into this mindset, you need to think about how you set up an emotional, mental and professional safety net. How can you put the minds of your team at ease, when you may be asking them to take a calculated risk? Well, for one thing, leadership can provide this comfort by taking an active role in innovation.
Taking shared responsibility for ideation and execution can also help here. Even a dedicated, small budget can help take the pressure off teams who are concerned with utilizing their contract codes or team resources on projects that may not deliver the outputs expected.
Innovation is a blend of art, science, and luck. Capture the problem, propose a solution. Formalize your hypothesis, state your assumptions for test variables. You need to test in controlled conditions so you can validate the outcomes against your initial hypothesis. Failed? Look at the assumptions – which can we tweak / dial to change the outcome? Go for round two. Keep going until you succeed. Don’t give up. Why? Heart surgery was considered impossible until 1896. Now, look where we are!
There’s a lot to consider when creating and maintaining a culture of innovation, and initial efforts bear seemingly little fruit. These seeds that you must sow take time, patience, care, and attention to nurture; they start off small and vulnerable, so need your protection and vision to proliferate. By setting strong roots with these key pillars, these seeds will grow into strong, organic supports that underpin a transformative organization. With deep roots, your innovation capability will become strong enough to resist the winds of change without snapping, yet remain flexible enough to adapt to the ever-changing landscape and conditions of your corporate savanna.