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How to Inspire a Culture of Innovation


Companies are faced with an era of constant evolution and creative disruption. They realize that they need to implement a culture of innovation to succeed. Can companies truly change their business objectives to include innovation without first instilling certain values in management?

Innovation: From the top down
Managers are really the only ones who can bring their teams together and implement meaningful and successful changes. If managers are not using a common language of innovation to link the actions of their team members to overall organizational goals, then employees will put their attention and dedication to other projects that they are more interested in, seem easier to implement, or for which they are given encouraging consequences.

Innovation isn’t just a loose term to provide a company with talking points. New skills, processes, and duties will need to be integrated into existing roles, and management should be tracking these changes. In the case of communication, absence does not make the heart fonder; it makes the heart go yonder. Managers need to be constantly reminding or providing support to help their team reach innovation targets.

Establishing communication
If the whole company is to be involved, management should begin communicating about innovation from the outset. When implementing innovation-focused processes and systems, managers should first establish a common language. Here’s what you should cover:

  • Determine what the word “innovation” means for your company.

  • Make sure the needs that the company wants to target for solution design are crystal clear.

  • Have a visible game plan for maintaining both current revenue and customers while branching out in a new direction.

  • Set expectations for how employees should engage with innovation.

  • Define initial targets for innovation performance.

  • Establish short interval reports to track progress and demonstrate success.

If you aren’t ready to do these things then you aren’t ready for innovation.

Some companies do choose to invite the whole company into the process of innovation by having everyone weigh in on the points mentioned above. Of course, this requires a bit of courage on the part of the company’s leaders. It can create vulnerability, and many leaders find this deeply challenging at worst, uncomfortable at least. It can also create headaches.

Sharing the focus on innovation may not be for everyone. If a company is, for example, a defense contractor and secrecy is critical for whatever reason, it might not be prudent for innovation to be companywide. If this is the case, the company might consider establishing a “Skunk Works.” The original Skunk Works was the official alias of Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Development Programs. This program had its own restricted access location, a separate budget, separate production facilities, and even separate management. Essentially, all innovation was behind closed doors.

However, unless secrecy in your company is vital for security purposes or for competitive advantage (like Apple, for example), the better course of action is to galvanize the whole company behind your innovation efforts.

Embracing innovation
When it comes to human nature, people don’t take easily to change. Trying to get an organization to move in a new direction is challenging, especially when the momentum is firmly behind getting existing products and services to market. Complacency is, therefore, innovation’s number one enemy, and has many forms:

  • Senior staff talking about innovation in glowing terms, but never actually addressing the hard work involved.

  • Organizational goals that don’t include innovation or are too narrow.

  • Lack of performance feedback on progress to goals.

  • A “shoot-the-messenger” approach to bad news.

  • A low-confrontation company culture.

What company leaders need to do to foster good feelings toward innovation is create a sense of urgency. Here are some methods:

  • Show how competitors are taking the lead in the market.

  • Set clear performance goals that are directly tied to innovation, such as revenue derived from new products.

  • Hold everyone accountable for strategic goals.

  • Share innovation performance data with all employees and discuss its implications for resource allocation, focus, and effort.

  • Keep up a constant flow of rich source material for ideas, such as customer dissatisfaction information, future opportunities, potential customers and markets, and the skills necessary to address those needs.

In other words: talk, talk, talk. If you want innovation, talk early and often about what it will take to achieve it. The Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling once said that, “the best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas.” With that in mind, the more people you have thinking about innovation, the better. The key is to demonstrate you know how to capture and prioritize all those incoming ideas so that they can be addressed and don’t overwhelm your day-to-day operations.

Andrew C. Marshall is the principal of Primed Associates LLC, thinkprimed.com, an innovation consultancy. He is a co-host of the weekly innovation-focused Twitter chat, #innochat, the founder, host and producer of Ignite Princeton, igniteprinceton.com and a contributor to the Innovation Excellence and Collaborative Innovation blogs. He also can be reached at (609) 613-3975.

Richard Blanchard

Rick is the Managing Editor of Corp! magazine. He has worked in reporting and editing roles at the Port Huron Times Herald, Lansing State Journal and The Detroit News, where he was most recently assistant business editor. A native of Michigan, Richard also worked in Washington state as a reporter, photographer and editor at the Anacortes American. He received a bachelor of arts from the University of Michigan and a master’s in accountancy from the University of Phoenix.

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