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Building a Culture of Innovation: A Few Essentials

Innovation is the currency of competitive advantage.  A culture that fosters innovation requires an organization-wide commitment to creative thinking and problem solving. Innovation must become routine, not a random or serendipitous accomplishment. It must be central to the way business gets done, not marginal. It must excite and motivate people, not scare them.

To build a culture of innovation, you must minimally: 

  • Find and hire the best talent you can;
  • Feed them with new ideas and trends;
  • Give them permission to challenge traditional ways of doing things;
  • Tear down the silos and bring in outside change agents – go from insular to open source;
  • Study human behaviour across cultures and search for unspoken desires; and
  • Generate a portfolio of new ideas that can translate into new products/services – from quantity comes quality.

Culture building is designed at the top and implemented in the middle.  Therefore it requires good managers to enable others to “get with the program.” In this regard, good managers are people who:

Stress the importance of collaborative efforts.  Innovative ideas invariably come from groups sharing information and insights with one another. It is therefore critical that operating silos be broken down and teamwork, networking and multi-tasking encouraged.

Don’t hammer down the nail that sticks out.  Oddballs, deviants and heretics are the lifeblood of innovation. Encourage and respect the diverse views of every member of your organization and reward them for venturing forth unconventional notions. These may not result in immediately useful ideas or applications but, once seeds are planted, they become fruitful. There are lots of reasons to abandon a seemingly interesting idea in favour of something that appears more promising. Remember the back-burner, discuss it with others and let it simmer for awhile.

Know how to encourage genuine brainstorming.  While the rules for brainstorming sound simple, few actually know how to ensure the exercise works. Properly done, brainstorming brings out the best in people and enables participants with different backgrounds and views to understand what each can uniquely contribute to the team. Learn to role model the behaviour that leads to breakthrough ideas and encourage everyone, especially the shy ones, to contribute their thoughts.

Look outside the organization for different points of view.  Hire an outside expert or resource person. Good ones are well worth the investment and don’t be put off by their operational naivete. The brainpower you may need is not always inside the organization (though never underestimate what you already have available, if properly nurtured). Often a different perspective is all that’s needed to get a project kick-started or back on track.

A culture of innovation is the by-product of several simple (but nonetheless essential) principles.  Among them are these:

  • Ideas come from seemingly irrelevant sources. Everyone can make a contribution and every point of view has merit.
  • Share as much information and data as you possibly can. There can be no secrets.
  • Favour intelligence and risk taking over experience when hiring and rewarding.
  • Give people both time and permission to think for themselves.
  • Don’t kill well-intentioned projects or interesting ideas – morph them into something useful.
  • The object is progress, not perfection. Getting better is the name of the game.
  • Pragmatic metrics are more important than individual preferences or politics. Consider Andy Grove’s (former Chairman of Intel) sage advice: “If it cannot be measured, it cannot be improved.”
  • In addition to vision and permission to dare to be different, people need to know the rules, the deliverables and the deadlines.
  • If the idea cannot eventually be used or operationalized, it’s likely not worth the effort or the resources. Move on to other promising concepts.

Innovation comes from acquiring and using multi-disciplinary skill sets, from encouraging bi-polar thinking capabilities and from consciously seeking out the eclecticism in people’s diverse experiences and their learning. A workplace that quashes unconventional thinking, that does not know how to constructively challenge and question routine ways of doing things, will be stuck in the past for a long time. Nothing should be considered sacrosanct. “No stone unturned” is the mantra of the innovative organization. Conscientiously apply these key principles and have patience – Rome wasn’t built in a day and an innovative workplace culture will not happen overnight either.

Jim Murray
CEO, optimal solutions international
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