How To Rally An Innovative Business Culture

When most of us think of an innovation culture, we think of a workplace where teams can “move fast and break things.”

Sounds fun, doesn’t it? But as many organizations quickly learn, the process of innovation is more than just a tagline. It takes effort to ensure your innovation efforts don’t break your bank account or leave behind a bunch of broken hearts.

Innovation starts with culture.

ll companies must innovate to survive. Most treat innovation as a series of isolated activities dedicated to a specific department or team. But you can’t throw five people in a room with a foosball table and expect innovation to happen magically.

If you want to amplify growth, innovation needs to be less sporadic and less reliant on one-hit wonders. This type of continuous innovation, where the entire team is always looking for ways to improve and build on existing products and services, requires an innovation culture that inspires the whole company.

An innovation culture only lives when your corporate culture allows it to thrive. The good news is that if your corporate values are clear and your team is aligned with those values, your innovation culture will grow naturally from there.

Breaking things requires a safe word.

Culture is critical to continuous innovation because moving fast and breaking things can only happen when teams feel safe to do so. Obviously, no one can be innovative if they fear being reprimanded for an unexpected result. A culture driven by dominance or intimidation may sporadically churn out a good idea, but innovation based on fear is unsustainable.

A nice culture isn’t necessarily a “safe” environment for innovation, either. In cultures that are too nice, teams won’t be able to innovate strategically because the activity is too coddled and the feedback is not honest. You can’t break anything in a bubble-wrapped room.

One technology company I worked with was so positive that the leadership spent a small fortune on side projects designed to divert customer feedback away from the team in order to avoid upsetting anyone. This hobbled any opportunity for employees to learn about issues and discover ways to deliver better solutions.

When there’s zero severity in how you talk about flaws, you’ll never hear the whole problem set. Issues get blanketed with general statements like, “We could do better in customer acquisition,” when customer acquisition is the lowest it’s ever been. That’s when being “safe” becomes toxic.

Practical limits inspire limitless innovation.

Another challenge for innovators is when a culture is too focused on “thinking big.” The backbone of a continuous innovation culture is quick, small wins that accrue over time. Who wants to spend the extra effort outside their usual work week for a project that won’t see the light of day for another three years? This is why for most members of the rank-and-file, continuous innovation sounds like more work for the same pay. (Hence all the quiet quitting over the last few years.)

The leadership team of a software company I counseled would challenge everyone to find “the next big thing.” On the surface, that sounds like a fantastic opportunity. But smaller-scale initiatives were dismissed as too narrow, and when the team brought forward a big idea, they were asked why all the other work couldn’t be done in that timeframe, as well.

By thinking so impractically, this company unintentionally created a problem where smaller yet potentially high-impact efforts were ignored because they weren’t flashy enough, and bigger ideas went unmentioned because the team didn’t want to add to their day job.

Continuous innovation is a marathon, not a sprint.

I’ve watched many organizations chase the idea that they can implement an innovation culture through expensive training programs and software tools. These programs rarely work because they’re based on ideal scenarios that don’t account for organizational nuances. But the good news is that you don’t have to spend much money or derail your current roadmap to get started.

In fact, the best way to inspire an innovation culture is technically free.

First, let the leadership team be seen giving and receiving feedback with mutual respect and with reasonable boundaries.

Let your CFO respectfully challenge your CEO on the group call or in the lunchroom. Watching executives have some tough talks out in the open shows the team that it’s okay for them to do it, too. If your leadership team can’t have frank, respectful dialogue, you shouldn’t ask your employees to do it.

Once your team feels safe providing feedback on a fundamental level, you can begin small-scale experimentation. Building a reinforcing loop of success as the team tries these experiments will help turn continuous innovation into a habit.

Internal processes are a super safe area for teams to practice with small-scale innovation. I encourage my clients to have executives identify an internal process to experiment with— like improving customer retention—because your employees will undoubtedly have ideas to improve the various touch points. Based on those ideas, you can quickly identify experiments to run.

There’s always an opportunity to innovate.

If your organization isn’t going to make culture-wide adjustments that inspire continuous innovation, my advice is to treat it as a dedicated project. Block time for specific innovation discovery and plan to minimize any other distractions.

But if you want innovation embedded throughout your organization, have your leadership team set the example and not just unilaterally set some business targets and say, “We’re going to do experiments now. Good luck, run wild, and be ready to present in 30 days.”

Because innovation isn’t about having a lot of ideas, it’s about doing something with them. When you have people who care about what they’re doing and care about the problems they are facing, they’re going to be talking about them. But you don’t want them only talking. An innovation culture inspires them to act—because those problems are at the root of future innovation that can help drive efficiency, profitability and valuable IP.

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