Updated: Jan 20
The key ingredients, the principles, and guidelines on developing a strong culture of innovation.
Defining the Innovation Culture.
A great culture of innovation can be thought of as a special, collective mindset that values and promotes curiosity and change as the primary success factors for the organization — holistically. It is a system of values and principles that bridges the organizational gaps and hierarchical barriers by inspiring and empowering people and teams to collaborate effectively toward a bold organizational purpose.*
As I explain in the Innovation Mode, the ‘system of values’ of the innovation culture is based upon six principles, namely:
When these principles are there — as part of the ‘operating system’ of the organization — people tend to be more open, creative, and efficient; they engage more with the innovation process, they are proactive, they share their ideas, and contribute to others’ ideas in constructive and creative ways.
At the same time, the leadership is also more open, accessible, and collaborative; they engage with innovation activities, they provide direct and constructive feedback and they accept failure as part of the innovation process. You will know that a great innovation culture is there when there is a “one team” mentality — the feeling of a single ‘force’ working toward a bold organizational purpose.
When this level of innovation culture is achieved, the entire organization engages with innovation in various ways — formal or informal — and there is a growing, influential, self-organizing innovation community.
But how could a company establish a culture of innovation? Ironically, the first step is the realization that the innovation culture cannot be ‘fixed on demand’ — you cannot simply advocate for a better culture or run a program and improve it.
In previous roles in my career I’ve seen leadership teams running expensive programs to change the collective mindset and set a focus on innovation — failing to realize that culture can only evolve organically. Whatever improvements you get out of such initiatives are only ephemeral. In contrast, reaching this ideal innovation culture requires ongoing demonstration of authentic leadership behaviors and real examples that link innovation with the purpose of the company.
Shaping and growing this special culture is a long process of inspiration and leadership, powered by authentic, strong messages.
The true culture of innovation starts evolving when a critical mass of people engages with the innovation function as a means of pursuing the purpose of the organization.
Although you cannot simply fix the culture, there are a few strategic ‘steps’ or initiatives that an organization can take — not to fix it but to trigger and empower its evolution.
1. Measure the current state of the innovation culture. The organization must understand the current state of the culture along with any blockers, blind spots, and gaps that prevent people from engaging with innovation.
For example, frequent innovation blockers include the weak link between innovation activities and the organizational purpose, slow and bureaucratic processes, the fear of failure, and a general disconnect from the leadership. This baseline regarding the state of the culture can be obtained by using quantitative and qualitative methods to ask employees and capture their perspectives and insights.
The leadership can then interpret these insights, set the right focus, and take action. For instance, the organization may realize that there is a lack of resources (technology, methods, templates, content, etc.) that slows down innovation and prevents people from engaging; or that people are not encouraged by their managers to participate in innovation events or to explore their ‘crazy’ ideas.
Such findings set the basis for designing and running a program for removing the blockers and providing a better framework for innovation. For instance, the company could orchestrate initiatives that improve innovation technology and methods, provide related educational programs, and establish more effective communication channels for innovation.
2. Streamline the measurement, establish feedback loops. The organization must streamline the ‘measurement’ described above — as an always-on ‘innovation pulse check’ — make it an ongoing process for quantifying the culture of innovation. This is essential as it allows the estimation of the impact that certain actions and programs have.
3. Establish effective communication mechanisms The leadership of the company must define and establish new communication mechanisms and channels — ones that make the organizational structure more flexible and help people connect and explore opportunities in less formal, more direct ways.
Through such an improved communication model, the leaders of the organization can become more present — they diffuse strong messages about the importance of innovation, the fail-safe fail-fast approach, along with real examples demonstrating how innovation serves the organizational purpose.
They also become more open and accessible — for example, there could be a ‘skip-level’ program that encourages people to go through a simple process and pitch their ideas — not to a fixed panel of experts, but to the right senior stakeholders/ decision-makers in the organization — even if they are aligned to a different division or group.
4. Empower a community of innovators. This is a critical one — it is about the formation and empowerment of an informal community of innovators — a self-organizing group of inspired innovators who, on the one hand, produce innovation results and, on the other hand, lead by example and attract the attention of the broader organization.
5. Introduce a well-designed reward system. An important aspect that can help a company move toward the true culture of innovation is a well-design reward system — one that recognizes not only ‘winning ideas’ and ‘top innovators’, but also a range of innovation behaviors that need to be recognized and promoted. A carefully designed gamification system can bring incredible results in promoting innovation and boosting the culture.
These are just some of the key initiatives — they may happen in parallel with additional activities and programs. Moving toward a strong innovation culture is an ongoing process — it must become part of the ‘operating system’ of the organization. In the ‘Innovation Mode’ I dedicate an entire chapter to define this special culture and a few more to present a transformation program to trigger and accelerate the cultural evolution.
*Krasadakis G. (2020) Innovation (Re) Defined. In: The Innovation Mode. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-45139-4_1