5 Ways to Build a More Innovative Culture at Work

by Jason Williams

company cultureIt is said—and widely accepted—that culture eats strategy for breakfast. Company culture is also an important driver for innovation. According to a 2016 Gartner Financial Services Innovation Survey, “The biggest threat to innovation is internal politics and an organizational culture which doesn’t accept failure, doesn’t accept ideas from outside, and/or cannot change.” Another MIT Sloan School of Management study found that corporate culture was a much more important driver of radical innovation than labor, capital, government or national culture.

These conclusions naturally raise the question: If you don’t have an innovative culture, how can you build one? There are many places to start, but here are five ways you can begin building an organizational culture that is more open to innovation:

1. Make innovation more comfortable.

It is important to establish a culture in which everyone begins to feel comfortable interacting with innovation. Some people on your team may have never seen “design” and “thinking” together in the same sentence. If you mention “lean principles,” they may have the next dieting fad in mind. Use (or create) internal communications to start educating your team on basic definitions and principles of innovation or to share articles and thought-leadership pieces from the innovation field. If you plan training programs, start with a focus on basic concepts such as collaboration and idea generation before you dive into more formal processes and frameworks.

2. Diversify your team.

Multiple studies confirm that diversity is another important driver for innovation. Quite simply, the more diverse your team is, the better your team will be at solving problems. When starting to build a more innovative culture, you should do your best to ensure that different perspectives are represented on the team selected to carry out that initiative. Are different departments represented? What about different industry experiences, genders, races, ages and seniority? All are important.

3. Break some rules.

During an event in Indianapolis, IN earlier this year, innovation leaders at Rolls-Royce shared a powerful story about paint swatches. When their team started to design a new innovation lab at the company headquarters, they were handed a corporate brand guide dictating every detail down to the acceptable carpet squares for the floors and Pantone colors for the walls. Their first step? They threw the guide in the trash. Walls were intentionally painted in unapproved colors to signify that the innovation lab is a place where traditional processes and corporate mindsets can be left at the door. This is a new space for new ways of thinking. Some rules are meant to be broken. Some are not necessary at all. Don’t be shy to throw some of yours in the trash as well.

4. Encourage curiosity.

Innovation doesn’t happen when we withdraw ourselves from the outside world, but rather when we engage with it. A great way to spark curiosity within your team is to let them explore. Encourage employees to attend local events and workshops. Find and promote conferences related to innovation, entrepreneurship and creativity. Bonus points if the events are not directly related to your industry. Some great resources for discovering events include Meetup, Eventbrite and organizations like TechPoint or Centric that maintain community event calendars.

An alternative curiosity-building tactic is to bring the outside world in. In their new innovation lab, Rolls-Royce hosts monthly “Digi-Talks” to bring in guest speakers on topics ranging from machine learning to the art of origami. Another large Indianapolis-based corporation has started an internal innovation series that brings in outside facilitators to lead workshops on topics such as ideation, rapid prototyping and collaboration.

5. Know your audience.

When starting to promote your innovation initiatives, keep in mind the rule of thirds. About one-third of your organization will immediately buy into the plan, one-third will never buy in and a third will be on the fence. Speak to this last group when discussing why innovation is important. Does the frontline understand? Is it clear the executive team has made innovation a priority? Are internal resources and activities available to everyone?

These ideas are just a start. Innovation is a continuous action verb; therefore, building an innovation culture will be a process. It will be important that you dedicate a small team to culture building and that you continue to seek new ideas and best practices for doing so. Good luck and remember; everyone in your organization can be more innovative in what they do.

 
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This story originally appeared in the Indianapolis Business Journal as part of their 2019 Innovation Issue.

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Jason WilliamsJason Williams is the Executive Director at Centric, an Indianapolis-based nonprofit that connects, educates and celebrates innovation-minded thinkers in an effort to improve the success rate of innovation in Indiana. Connect with him on Twitter @jawbrain.