How to create a culture of innovators

To get everyone on the innovation bandwagon, start by fostering small changes in people, processes, and products using these three steps

12Feb

Corporations may prize the concept of innovation, but far too many hesitate to make the changes necessary to consistently invite new ideas.

It's easy to understand why. Innovation brings risk, which can lead to pie-in-your-face moments. What company wants to be associated forever with a failed product release like Burger King's Satisfries or Thirsty Cat! bottled water?

Despite the chance of being added to a "top fail" listicle, business leaders must take the innovation plunge if they hope to compete. C-suite buy-in is essential to driving a culture that embraces the necessity of small-scale trial and error without punishment.

From the ground floor to the top of the corporate ladder, each team member must be able to take risks without worrying about how they might affect a future promotion or paycheck. Otherwise, no one will be eager to jump on the innovation bandwagon.

Overcoming common threats to organizational innovation

What are the biggest innovation hurdles faced by modern companies? Aside from risk aversion from the C-suite, internal politics looms as a significant barrier to innovation per a survey from Gartner Financial Services. As the survey explains, chief innovation officers regularly must overcome the unconscious biases, beliefs, and habits in those around them to make innovation inroads. When they don't, innovations falter and fail.

Of course, occasional streaks of innovation may bubble to the surface even in the most political of businesses. But more often than not, those standalone efforts will be doomed to fail because they aren't part of the organization's core DNA. A truly innovative workplace fosters micro-changes in people, processes, and products. It doesn't hope for flash-in-the-pan concepts that are so outrageously and obviously "winners" that they can head to market immediately.

Another issue facing businesses that are otherwise ready for innovation is lack of planning for a new direction. Legacy brands can be especially paralytic when asked to pivot. Rather than eagerly embracing tomorrow, they cling to yesteryear out of self-preservation. Ultimately, their immobility opens opportunities for lean, hungry startups.

The only way to get past these roadblocks is to initiate a comprehensive refocusing that encourages successes and failures to achieve a goal. Ford seems to understand this principle, if Mark Fields' CES presentation from 2016 is any indication. Since the former CEO's talk, the company has continued to unveil innovative, competitive next-gen vehicles and even promise an electric Ford-150 truck. Though Ford's turnaround hasn't been particularly fast, the company seems driven to stay the course and lead the pack once again.

If your company always seems to lag behind, make a few key changes to help create a culture of innovators, not imitators:

Set and share a clear definition of innovation.

You may know what innovation means to you, but don't assume it means the same thing to everyone across your company. Develop a definition and share it with all team members. You'll be able to work from a common understanding, and they'll know innovation when they see it.

Give someone the distinct ownership of innovation.

When no one owns innovation, everything will stay the same. However, you don't need to be a CIO to be a point person. For example, it is key to innovate processes to ensure the work we're doing is actually still working and develop processes that can be rinsed and reused across businesses for consistent results. That way, everyone understands that he or she can come to me with new process ideas.

Track and measure your corporate innovations.

How do you currently find out about new ideas or products? Are they brought to your attention randomly? Do you stumble upon them after a competitor has put something on the market? Create a system to track your improvements and novel concepts, from how many you launch to how well they perform. That way, you can see which mini-innovations are worth even more time and effort. Seek quantifiable, objective measures because they take the emotion out of discontinuing failed attempts to innovate.

Every corporation has the capacity to build an infrastructure supportive of innovation. Start by ridding everyone of the notion that failure is somehow wrong. Failure is a natural outcropping of success. It can even be the stepping stone you need to reach the top.


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