9 ways to foster an innovation culture

Marcia Da Silva
AUTHOR
Marcia Da Silva
    5 minute read

You’ve got to hand it to companies that boast innovative cultures – they sure make it look easy. From Apple and Amazon to Samsung and Sony, these are the brands that routinely stand atop ‘World’s Most Innovative Companies’ lists by unveiling an endless stream of unique products, delivering first-of-their-kind marketing initiatives and employing a host of highly intelligent, creative and energetic people.

Take a peek behind that picture-perfect façade though and you’ll fast discover something else each of those companies has in common – they work incredibly hard to foster their innovative cultures. While some business leaders seem to sit back and wait for some innovation magic dust to land on their desks, the likes of Tesla and Microsoft are rolling up their sleeves, trialling new systems, taking risks, learning from their mistakes and empowering their employees. No matter how big or small a company is, be it a start-up or well-established organisation, innovative cultures don’t just happen.

That said, they certainly can happen and here’s how.

What is cultural innovation?

By definition, cultural innovation refers to the work atmosphere that companies instil to foster innovation, productivity and creative thinking among their teams. Every business has a unique culture, with University of Michigan business professors Robert E. Quinn and Kim S. Cameron proclaiming that each one is a mix of four different types of organisational culture under one leading cultural style. These include:

  • Clan – extended family, mentoring, nurturing, participation
  • Hierarchy – structure, control, coordination, efficiency, stability
  • Market – results orientated, gets the job done, values competition, achievement.

Then there is the organisational culture that shines brightest in companies boasting a strong innovation culture – Adhocracy.

Based on energy and creativity, the adhocracy culture is all about being dynamic, entrepreneurial and taking risks. Leaders are seen as innovators or entrepreneurs and promote themes of experimentation, freedom and agility. Facebook is considered a classic example of an adhocracy organisation, epitomised by CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s famous quote: “Move fast and break things – unless you are breaking stuff, you are not moving fast enough.”

Companies that place an emphasis on adhocracy clearly lend themselves to fostering an innovative corporate culture and you only have to look at the success of Facebook to know there are many reasons for wanting to do just that.

Innovation culture benefits

  • Company growth: savvy business leaders know innovation is an investment in the future of their organisation. While it is natural to want to dedicate one’s energy and resources to activities that deliver profit today, focusing too much on the here and now will limit growth. The creative process is complex and needs to be encouraged so new ideas and products – not to mention future profits - can be realised.
  • Differentiation: one of the greatest benefits of creating a culture of innovation is it allows companies to stand out from the crowd. In an increasingly competitive market, consumers are attracted to organisations that do things differently and few things shine brighter than innovation. This is particularly so among younger consumers, with the tech sector overflowing with examples of businesses that create a buzz and, in turn, stimulate profits by being at the cutting-edge of innovation.
  • Staff morale: retaining quality staff is a never-ending challenge for companies, all the more so in an age when people who never switch jobs are considered an oddity. Team members who don’t get to build skills or discover new ones are more likely to disengage and start scrolling through recruitment websites. Let them test their ideas and push them to grow in their roles and watch their engagement soar. Better still, their injection of enthusiasm will likely lead to even more innovative products and processes.
  • Recruitment: it’s safe to assume that most companies want to attract innovative employees. The kind of people who take action, test limits and look to solve problems. Well, guess what? Innovative people want to work in innovative environments and will quickly work out if your organisation is not that. Foster an innovation culture and the best talent will come knocking.

How to foster an innovation culture

  • Make it your mission: like any cultural trend, creating innovation as a company starts at the top. Leaders need to set the standard and show employees what they are striving for. Staff will quickly see through any talk of innovation and experimentation if their executives and managers are not living their words. Put the concept of innovation at the heart of the company’s mission.
  • Allow staff to innovate: this seems obvious but too many companies fall into the trap of talking about innovation and fail to allow their employees the time and space they need to develop innovative ideas. Daily pressures and deadlines will always be a fact of life and that is why innovative companies create dedicated opportunities for their staff to experiment with concepts or nurture their ideas.
  • Reward success … and failure: celebrating innovators within an organisation is a way to inspire not only them but the people around them. Innovative cultures are positive cultures and nothing says positivity like being publicly applauded. As importantly, failure is a vital part of innovation and leaders need to create an environment where stumbling is not to be feared but viewed as key steps on the path to success.
  • Move quickly: it is all well and good to have a creative idea but sometimes the only way to find out if they are going to succeed is to roll the dice. Market research and analysis are great tools for providing insights into which projects should be tested and which should be passed over and the sooner an idea can be put into play, the sooner they can hopefully gain traction. And while data has a role to play, never underestimate the power of human intuition when it comes to innovation.
  • Identify ‘innovation champions’: one of the aims of establishing an innovation culture is to create a workplace where every team member has a commitment and vested interest in driving innovation. Before then, it is worth identifying those employees who will help make it a reality. Chanelling the passion and energy of a select group of ‘innovation champions’ will help inspire others to join the cause.
  • Collaborate: breaking down barriers between management, employees and different departments can result in expanded innovation across all levels of a company. Businesses that are heavily siloed often have invisible or unspoken barriers that work against an innovative culture, with employees fearful of speaking out of turn. Conversely, promoting relaxed collaboration between divisions and hosting all-staff brainstorming sessions can greatly improve the fostering of innovative ideas.
  • Be free: fixed rules and templates are the antithesis of innovation. While many business leaders feel the need to impose boundaries on their staff to drive productivity, building an innovation culture is an organic and creative act that benefits from a more free-range style of management. There is a big difference between guiding principles and stringent rules, with the former a much better approach. Put simply – trust your staff.
  • Colour your world: workplaces with innovation cultures should look and feel like workplaces with innovation cultures. While no one expects every office to feature bean bags and air hockey tables (although they are pretty cool), every effort should be made to create a visually stimulating space via colour, artworks and open space.

How to get started …

Identifying that your organisation would benefit from an innovation culture is one thing. Making it a reality is another. While we have highlighted how innovation is vital for companies to remain competitive and outlined ways to foster such cultural change, many converted readers may be feeling overwhelmed by the task that lies ahead of them.

The key to remember is that fostering an innovation culture cannot be achieved overnight and is not as simple as implementing one big idea. It takes a series of smaller, strategic actions that combine over time to create a workplace where innovation is not so much a ‘buzzword’ as a way of life. It can start with something as simple as a process improvement that allows staff more time and energy to tap into their creative minds.

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