Young creative business people at office

Your questions answered: Who needs a culture of innovation?

Lately, it seems like every company has dedicated itself to establishing a “Culture of Innovation” amongst its employees. From decades-old, established industry players to brand-new, way-outside-the-box startups, it seems that everyone agrees that a culture of innovation is integral to the performance and success of a modern company. But just what is a culture of innovation?

Q: What is a culture of innovation?

Support and Trust: A company with a culture of innovation provides an environment of support that fosters and rewards creative thinking. This helps to encourage tinkering and play, which can lead to unexpected breakthroughs.

Shared values: In a culture of innovation, all employees, from the bottom to the top, genuinely place value and emphasis on experimentation. Shared beliefs mutually reinforce each other, strengthening the values in a sort of feedback loop.

Embracing failure: Part of buying into a culture of innovation is genuinely accepting the possibility of failure and turning it into a learning experience. This is the most difficult aspect: it is all too easy to play lip service to the idea of innovation when it doesn’t cost you, but only the truly dedicated can embrace its downsides as enthusiastically as its upsides.

Q: Okay, I’m sold. How do I foster a culture of innovation in my own company?

There’s no single correct way to create a culture of innovation in a company. As with any cultural shift, at first, there is bound to be tension—people don’t like to change (in fact, one of the key benefits of a culture of innovation is creating an adaptable workforce more receptive to change). However, there are several key steps that can go a long way towards creating a culture of innovation in most organizations.

Listen to your employees: where do ideas come from? From your workers! Employees will only suggest and push innovation if they feel that their ideas will be respected and appreciated. Sometimes, a flaw—procedural, strategic, cultural—is so entrenched, that to suggest change feels like betrayal. This is the opposite of a culture of innovation. Managers should not feel threatened by revolutionary and game-changing ideas, even if it means facing change head on. Many companies have an ‘open door’ policy on meetings with the management that doesn’t go much further than lip service. Promise to listen—and mean it!

Utilize flat hierarchies wherever possible: while managers remain necessary for most organizations, excessive stratification in hierarchies impedes progress and makes organizations sluggish. Complicated and indirect lines of communication restrict an organization’s ability to react to market or industry changes, stifling innovation.  

Encourage interdepartmental collaboration: some of the best ideas come when a fresh mind is introduced to a persistent problem. By encouraging employees to create ad hoc interdepartmental teams to tackle issues as they come up, you expose your employees to every aspect of your business, increasing cross-pollination of ideas and new methods of collaboration and cooperation. Fresh ideas are the best ideas!

Abolish sentimentality: innovation is about not fearing change and being brave enough to throw out the status quo and start over. To stay innovative, your organization must take nothing for granted and internalize the idea of industrial change on a huge scale. Apple gained massive success with its line of iPod mp3 players, then cannibalized its own product line when it released the iPhone a few years later. Apple was able to see the writing on the wall and predict and capitalize on the advent of smartphones. A company less welcoming to innovation may have squashed the iphone project to protect the iPod, but then we’d all be carrying Nokias or Sony phones around in our pockets today.

Q: So when should I start?

There’s no time like the present! Though the transition to a culture of innovation can be difficult and complicated, especially for long-established companies, the benefits are as obvious as they are difficult to quantify. A culture of innovation means seizing the opportunity for productive change whenever possible. So why not start today?

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