How to create an innovation culture

People ask me this question often. And I have a simple answer. You do not need any elaborate systems and processes to create an innovation culture.

The way you deal with a new idea will determine your innovation culture. What do you do when an employee suggests a new idea? Think about it.

Do you receive the new idea with enthusiasm? Explore how it can benefit the organization? Do you build on the idea to make it better? Do you make the person who suggested the idea feel like a hero? Do you learn from failure and not indulge in a witch-hunt when an idea bombs?

Then you have an innovation culture.  It is that simple.  OK, maybe it is not so simple. But here is the first big step you can take at your leadership level. CEO, the board, management council etc.

Create a demand for new ideas? a market for new ideas. Farmers take their produce to where there is a demand for what they grow. They do not waste time with markets where there is no demand for their produce.

If you demonstrate that there is a genuine demand for new ideas, then you will find employees will respond. The key word here is ‘demonstrate’ that there is a genuine demand.

Demonstrate with action, not just words. You don’t need an idea programme. Or innovation week etc.  As a CEO what exactly you do with a completely new idea sends the signals down the line.

There are many adults who are not comfortable dealing with newborn babies or small children. And children can sense that. They stay away from such adults. Similarly, people with new ideas can sense whether the culture welcomes them.  Or views them with suspicion.

What you say and what you DO as an organization will drive your innovation culture.

What core values do you need to drive an innovation culture? What drives your decision making will determine that. Who are the heroes of your innovation culture?

Here are a few clues.

  1. Leadership. Is it walking the talk on new ideas, creativity and innovation?
  2. Trust. Do the employees feel comfortable and safe to share new ideas?
  3. Measurement. Is there a transparent system to measure the impact of new ideas
  4. Accountability.  Where does the buck stop when it comes to new ideas, implementation, results?
  5. Speed. How long does it take for a new idea to reach decision makers? How long do they take to decide on it? How long does it take to implement an approved idea?
  6. Yes, but.  How do you respond to a new idea? Look at all killer phrases that demolish new ideas and bury them. In one organization that I knew they had at least 30 different expressions for killing a new idea. Yes, But ..  is universal. Here are a few other killer phrases. Is it on Strategy? Where is the budget for this? Way ahead of its time. Boss won’t like it. Not sure if the board will allow this. Too radical. We are not that kind of company. Does not fit our culture.

If you fix point 6 first, you will make a new beginning. Replace those killer phrases with more encouraging and positive expression.

  1. Tell me more. How do you think we can make this idea work?
  2. Who will benefit from this idea?
  3. What triggered this? What made you think of this idea? I am curious.

Creating an innovation culture has become a fashionable thing to talk about and debate. To create an innovation culture, you need mavericks who constantly look for new ideas. And implement them. They are the heroes you must celebrate. For their commitment to new ideas and making them happen.

Creating an innovation culture is about helping your people think differently. Knowing well that things could go wrong. And if that happened the leadership would focus on what we learned and move on.

Think boldly. Act effectively. And watch the difference.


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