A few years ago, I spoke at a conference where I told the leaders in attendance this exact statement.
It struck a chord with one attendee: the chief innovation officer of the Great NW + Pacific BBB. He reached out to me to talk about his goals to move his regional Better Business Bureau forward, and we created an innovation academy designed to inspire innovation across every department—the ultimate goal was to jumpstart a culture of innovation. Fast forward 2 years, and 50 employees have graduated from the in-house training, innovation efforts have increased across departments, and the organization continues to report cost savings as departments find more efficient ways to work.
The key to business success is creating a culture that supports and encourages innovation—giving your team the encouragement needed to solve complex customer problems reliably at scale. Businesses exist only because they solve problems for their customers. And companies grow only when they increasinglysolve customer problems, which requires innovation.
Innovation is the solution, yet we know that companies struggle with innovation. Experts estimate innovation failure at somewhere between 75% and 95%. As an innovation advisor, I often see it on the higher side. Innovation is critical to business survival.
So, what is a culture of innovation? It’s an environment where employees are equipped with the tools, knowledge, skills, and motivation to continually generate and implement value-creating ideas. It’s building a culture that supports both creating and delivering value, and begins with a mindset.
Just as taking award-winning photographs requires both creativity and tools, such as cameras, lighting and photographic settings, perhaps most important of all, it takes an imaginative mind to get great shots. You could take three people to the same location, give them the same equipment, and instruct them to take an amazing photo—and you would get three different photos.
It is the same with innovation. A quality product takes a variety of ideas, tools, and processes to create, but most importantly it takes the right people with the right mindset—and with differing perspectives. The tools don’t replace the imaginative brain. The brain is what gives processes and tools value, not the other way around. The culture of an organization is a reflection of the mindset of the people inside that organization.
This is why your people are essential to the value your business creates—to innovation and a productive innovative culture. Each person is a contributor to the culture. Culture is inextricably intertwined with the people who make it up. Either they add positively, or they add negatively. Every one of your employees comes to work with the power to influence results.
Innovation in action
Why should you invest in developing a culture of innovation? The benefits of an innovative culture are far-reaching. When employees have the inspiration, autonomy, responsibility, tools, and encouragement they need, they will continually improve the business. They’ll find more efficient ways to do things, develop solutions that your customers want, and start thinking about the future of the company in exciting new ways. An innovative culture creates a diverse team of minds working together and doesn’t leave the future of the business on the leader’s shoulders alone, since more people are thinking of the next set of opportunities based on understanding their customers’ needs, wants, and desires.
Implementing an innovative culture allows you to grow, harness, and finesse your results. Here are seven elements you need to make your culture an innovation machine that improves your business:
Leaders drive toward the future
If you believe that only leaders can kick off innovation, or if you have a leader who doesn’t care about value creation beyond his or her current job, then your people will never be motivated to think differently and solve problems. A forward-thinking leader with the bigger picture in mind will help everyone on the team to own innovation in their own roles.
Employees have a growth mindset
When your employees have a growth mindset, they will challenge themselves to work differently. They will own problem-solving and execution in the name of pushing themselves and the company forward. Create this environment by aggressively communicating the importance of growth mindset over survival, or scarcity, mindset.
People look to collaborate
When you ask your people to collaborate and come up with ideas, you will move past the status quo, hierarchy, titles, entitlements, and small thinking. Innovation requires many minds and ideas, critical thinkers and dreamers, action takers and implementers. When your team works together, the magic happens. Innovation doesn’t belong to a single leader or even a single team. It belongs to every person in the company, and it requires a variety of talents to execute well. Create cross functionality and diverse teams in as many projects as possible to encourage collaboration and accountability.
Teams are focused on opportunity
Your team must continually focus on identifying and capitalizing on opportunities that come across so they can serve and grow your customer base. When your people are looking for opportunities, they will always find them. Teach employees how to identify good-to-great opportunities and to understand the cost of lost opportunities, waste, and efficiencies.
Futuristic thinking is a priority
Once employees are motivated to think futuristically, they will build the future of your company. A culture that promotes possibility and considers what will be needed in the future is a culture that will sustain itself by creating additional value. Allow your employees to dream about how they can help your company grow by serving your customers better and how to create space for a flourishing company.
Employees feel empowered
Work to make all employees feel empowered and appreciated. Give them authority and the opportunity to self-lead. Empower them to come up with ideas to solve their own problems. Everyone matters in the organization because everyone can contribute to value creation. Treat each employee as an individual by honoring wants, needs, strengths, and desires. When employees feel seen and heard, they feel special, and have a sense of belonging, empowerment, and encouragement to make additional contributions.
Everyone is accountable for results
After empowering employees, you must make them accountable. Routinely ask, What problems have you solved? Which customers have you helped? Make innovation results a part of everyone’s job description. Ask, train, and give space to each employee to be their own boss with clear deliverables, and congratulate them when they deliver great results.
When employees believe that the quality of their work matters and that their values and motivations are congruent with those of the company, you will see the power of an innovative culture multiply. Building the right team, based on an innovative culture and a value-creating mindset, will propel your company into the future.