84% of leaders consider innovation to be very important for their future success but far fewer are able to succeed in it.
No matter how you look at it, innovation is very difficult and often highly unpredictable. To succeed at it, you simply have to get a lot of things right at once.
However, the one thing that’s usually the most difficult to get right for incumbent organizations is culture.
Changing organizational structures and processes, hiring new talent and introducing new tools can all be accomplished in relatively short periods of time, whereas culture change inevitably takes longer.
Culture is a sum of many parts. To some extent, it’s the average of the people’s mindsets within the organization. However, it’s also dramatically affected by the processes, practices and habits that are in place at the organization.
To that effect, we’ll now share a few proven practices that you can do to shape your culture to be more innovative, which is after all one of the key factors for succeeding in innovation.
1. Make innovation a part of your strategy
Well-built organizations are built to help them succeed in their strategy.
The structures, processes and governance are all there to help them achieve whatever it set out to do.
If innovation isn’t a part of the organization’s strategy, it’s very unlikely that there are structures in place for supporting it. If that is the case, people will likely focus on doing whatever it is that they’re being measured against as opposed to working on new innovations. After all, their compensation and career progress depend on their performance against those metrics.
So, if you haven’t specifically made innovation a core activity for the organization, there likely isn’t much time, energy or other resources left for innovation. And if that is the case, there most certainly won’t be much of it.
Thus, start by including innovation in your strategy and make sure to communicate to everyone how important it is for the organization going forward.
Once people see that you’re serious about innovation, the message will start to stick.
2. Ask everyone for ideas
Every innovation always start from an idea.
In the beginning it’s often this vague mess of tacit knowledge, past experience and external inspiration floating around in someone’s head.
Without the right mix of these ingredients, the idea likely won’t be novel enough to lead to significant innovations.
So, to come up with the best possible innovations, it would make sense to try to combine all of that tacit knowledge, past experience and external influences available out there to form as collective consciousness capable of creating perfect innovations.
In practice, no one has yet found the perfect way to do that as it’s notoriously difficult to try to understand, collect and combine all of these intangible thoughts and pieces of knowledge different people might have.
The best alternative is simply to ask everyone for their ideas on how they would innovate or otherwise improve the way the organization works and then collectively refine and develop these ideas.
A collective pool of ideas is, after all, the embodiment of the employees’ tacit knowledge put together. Taking this kind of a systematic approach, typically referred to as idea management, also has additional benefits.
Communicating that you want everyone to share their ideas like this this also reinforces the message of innovation being truly important for the organization, which again steers everyone towards a more innovation-oriented mindset and culture.
3. Reward taking responsibility
Taking responsibility is incredibly valuable, however it’s often mistaken for taking initiative.
Employees who take initiative are usually great employees. They want to help the company get better and have the best of intentions. They can often even achieve great things by doing this.
However, there’s still a big difference between those who take initiative and those who take responsibility. It’s the latter that actually make innovation happen.
Initiative is about doing things. Responsibility is about finishing those things and getting real results out of them.
Doing things is a prerequisite for getting results, but it might not be enough.
Taking initiative is usually fun and allows you to feel good about yourself. Taking responsibility, on the other hand, is often—dare I say usually—very painful.
Taking responsibility is about getting to the desired results, regardless of what it takes to get there.
In the beginning, you might not have the required resources or know-how, but there are usually ways to get around these challenges, which is very much what innovation is and has always been all about.
If you don’t succeed right away, this approach forces you to face many of the flaws in your own skills and thinking, which can make you question yourself and feel very insecure about yourself.
This requires you to be critical enough of your own work to see where you fell short, but to also realize that this doesn’t define you as a person or as a professional, or even the project as a failure.
It simply takes a lot of humility and mental toughness to be able to face those facts and reflect upon them, but it’s eventually the only way to succeed in the long run.
After all, there isn’t a single person on earth that succeeds in everything they do, especially at first.
As Ray Dalio likes to say: Pain + Reflection = Progress.
As such, you should make the distinction between taking initiative and taking responsibility clear and then praise and reward those who choose to take the more painful road of taking responsibility and seeing it through to fruition.
Taking responsibility forces you to learn and to accomplish things, both of which are prerequisites for innovation to happen. Once you have a culture where everyone knows the difference, you’re well on your way towards a pro-innovation culture.
4. Celebrate learning
You often hear people suggesting you to celebrate failure to create a culture of innovation. While there’s plenty of truth in this approach, it’s not exactly ideal in my experience.
I’ve seen people take it too literally and fail for the sake of failing, or fail just to be a “part of the club.”
Failure is an inevitable part of the journey towards winning but it’s not failing that matters in itself, it’s learning from those failures and mistakes that will ultimately get you closer to your goal, very much like we discussed in chapter 3.
I’ve recently tried to learn to handstand walk. In the beginning I was quite timid and didn’t really make any progress, no matter how hard I tried different progressions of the movement.
One day I accidentally fell over on my back, which was exactly what I had been afraid of the whole time.
After I realized that there wasn’t really anything to be afraid of, I started to challenge myself more and more.
I fell over countless times in the process but also started to make rapid progress. I eventually reached my goal within a few weeks from that day.
Failure is a great teacher, however make sure you use it to learn and become better, not just to become more tenacious by repeatedly hitting your head against the wall.
The way to do this at the scale of a company is to celebrate learning.
Remind people that failing isn’t anything to be afraid of, but that the point of trying new things is to learn and to get better and that if someone already knows what you don’t, it’s smarter to learn from them instead of just blindly learning through failing.
5. Adopt the “Need Seeker” mentality
A 2011 Booz & Co. study revealed that 60% of the top 10 global innovators are so called “Need Seekers.” Need Seekers are very focused on engaging customers and on being the first to market with a value-driven approach, very much in line with the “Lean Startup” and “Jobs to be Done” schools of thought.
Thus, to channel the passion and energy in the organization towards actually creating value and driving real innovation instead of pointless hype, you would do well to communicate the importance of this approach.
This approach also helps you get measurable “quick wins” that are very important for winning the trust of everyone in the organization and for getting them to buy in on your new culture of innovation.
Once they see the results, it’s hard for even the skeptics to not start believing in your message.
There’s obviously much more to creating an innovative company culture than these five simple steps, but they should help get you on the fast track towards making progress.
And, remember, changing culture doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a gradual, often even frustratingly slow, process that you simply have to do your best to progress bit by bit.
However, even though the road might be a bit longer and more painful than you’d hope for, the closer you get to the other end, the more valuable you realize it is to make that journey as an organization.