Innovation is one of those words. Like motherhood or apple pie. It’s seen as something that is purely good and something every business should aim for. Almost all businesses talk about innovation—companies that are seen as “innovative” are considered as ahead of the curve and attractive places to work, with a long future ahead of them.
But what is innovation? Stop thinking about it as a buzzword and instead think about the opportunities it presents to your business. All too often when we think of innovation, we think of it as something someone else does, because we can’t. That “someone else” might be outside specialists or consultants, or the people in your innovation department. We also tend to associate innovation with digitization and technology.
If you need a culture of innovation in your company (and you probably do) then these assumptions and associations could be bad for business.
How can you have an innovative culture if it’s somebody else’s business? In an increasingly complex world, innovation comes from really understanding a problem and coming up with solutions that might work. It can be as complicated as onboarding your entire business online, or as simple as questioning a process and making a small change with big impact.
It takes a lot of work to get everyone to see themselves as innovators. But it is possible. It just means you should stop worrying about innovation. Worry, instead, about building a culture where it’s almost inevitable.
Here are some ways to make it happen.
Choose your moment
If the only time people are asked their opinion is in a high-stakes situation, then don’t be surprised if you don’t have an innovative culture. Let people start slow and low so that they get comfortable sharing their opinions and challenging and being challenged. It’s much easier to talk about a new hiring process if you’ve already had conversations about what food to serve at the company meeting.
Accept innovation will look different in different places and celebrate it
Don't simply try to innovate for the sake of it, or for PR and marketing purposes. Not all disruption is improvement and not every change for the better comes from technology. Of course, it’s great to be inspired by market innovation, but don’t hold yourself up against others all the time. Don’t compare and contrast. Instead, really think about the issues or challenges within your business—think about where you most need to see change. Is it employee engagement? The sales process? Customer experience?
Create systems and processes that support innovation
In an innovative culture, ideas are floated, challenged, improved, discarded, implemented and rejected constantly. That’s what innovation is. It’s not always easy, so create systems and processes that support rather than squash it. Remove those that don’t. Make sure people always have time to prepare and think. Understand that sometimes—often—innovation is born from failure. Uphold a culture where people feel safe enough to take risks and challenge the status quo.
Be specific about what you want
For example, you might want culture that allows people to hear and be heard, to discover possibilities. In that case you need to get into behaviors like:
- Turning up with three ideas
- Reading the briefing before the meeting (if there isn’t a brief, why is the meeting taking place?)
- Accumulating first—not criticizing or improving before allthe ideas are on the table
- Critically criticizing—everybody finding one negative thing to say about a plan and one positive
- Finding three problems with your own solution
- Using verbs to explain what you’re going to do
- Building in the ‘Who What Where When Why How’ accountability
- Asking two questions before sharing a response
In other words, to build an innovative culture don’t focus on the output—the fact that you want innovation. Instead, focus on the inputs—the behaviors that lead to innovation. Making innovative behaviors easier to exhibit, expected and rewarded consistently and constantly will help you get the culture you want and need.