Enterprise / Entrepreneur / Government / Innovation / Technology

Creating a culture that encourages innovation

‘Innovation’ is quite the buzz word within businesses looking to beat the recession, keep a competitive edge, or move in a different direction. Talking about innovation is far from actively encouraging and implementing it, however. For it to be truly engrained in the organisation a shift in the culture, as well as a change in processes, is required. The culture shift won’t happen overnight, but the following pointers will go some way to encouraging and embedding a culture that is open to change and new ways of thinking:

1. Management
This is not innovation

Set innovation targets.
Highlight results at the top level of the organisation, and have retributions if targets aren’t met. Though this will sit uncomfortably with many and take effort to implement, formalising innovation is the quickest and help ensure it actually happens.

Don’t leave employees’ ideas hanging.
Have a process for capturing ideas and feedback from all levels of the organisation, and be honest and open (ask yourself ‘why can’t I say this’ rather than ‘can I say this’) in your responses to them. Give justifiable explanations for both no’s and yes’s.

Engage employees with the whole change, decision making and delivery process, empowering employees to develop and test ideas themselves. Consider creating a skunkworks team to better enable this, and link the team to a formal process so that potential successes aren’t lost.

Give rewards.
Rewards don’t have to be financial; often recognition is enough. Rewards will visibly verify the acceptance of change (therefore encouraging it further) and demonstrate the type of change the organisation is looking for.

Encourage employee movement.
Encourage moves both within and outside (for example as loans or secondments) the organisation. Changing employees’ physical environment will speed the impression that change is acceptable, enable employees to develop cross-organisation and sector networks, and encourage fresh viewpoints in different business areas.

Don’t punish employees who do things differently.
Channel their creativity. Having innovation ambassadors (who can advise and coordinate) in different areas of the organisation can help align employees’ creativity with the organisation’s strategic goals.

Make employees comfortable with what is happening, and give them options.
The organisation is about to go through a lot of upheaval, and employees will be understandably concerned and averse to rocking the boat. Make them comfortable with making suggestions by formalising the process and setting examples, and if people will need to leave make the process as painless as possible. Be prompt with information, honest about what is happening, and creative in alternatives. Some organisations, for example, offer employees grants to start their own business if they take redundancy.

2. Employees
An unlikely location for change

Put yourself in the shoes of someone who has just joined the organisation.
Question everything. Accept nothing if it doesn’t make business or logical sense.

Have side projects.
Work with people inside and outside the organisation. Don’t be concerned if nothing comes of them; the networks you build and additional knowledge you gain will be invaluable.

Don’t fight the dinosaurs (at least not at first).
Long-term employees of the organisation may be averse to change at first. Work with them rather than against them; their knowledge and insights are likely to be invaluable (as written about previously).

Embrace opportunities
Say yes to everything- try new things, create new networks, don’t be afraid to leave your comfort zone. If the organisation is truly committed to change then it is those who aren’t afraid to adapt that will do well. If they aren’t really committed then question whether it’s somewhere you want to work.

Push things, but don’t burn all your bridges (or if you do- have options)
Innovation isn’t all about disruption; work- at least some of the time- within the innovation processes the organisation has laid out. They are often more likely to ensure that the idea or feedback is actually taken on board. A certain amount of rule bending is usually necessary… just make sure you have a back up plan if you decide to push it as too far.


Do you have an example of an organisation that has attempted this sort of culture change? Please tell me about them if you do- I would love to hear about success stories as well as those that haven’t worked so well.

11 thoughts on “Creating a culture that encourages innovation

  1. I guess you could say I’m at the opposite end of my career from you. You know what all that time has taught me?

    How little I actually know and have a right to tell anyone. All I really know is how wrong I’ve been in the past and I just use that to question everything that’s “meant to be”.

    I really admire your drive to change things. But could I suggest you present questions rather than answers, opinions rather than definitive statements of fact, or people may well ask you “how do you know that?”

    And that may leave you without a good answer to give them.

    A question for you. Innovation is about changing things. Another word for changing things is disruption. If nothing is changed (disrupted) where is the innovation?

  2. Thanks for the feedback Neil. My blog post was a series of “pointers”- i.e. a set of suggestions that will work for some but not for all. For companies that have no experience of this sort of process I think they will find them useful, particularly as they are based on my insight in to what is working well within quite a wide variety of companies trying to make these sort of changes. Perhaps I could have made my background and the fact that not all suggestions will work for everyone clearer within the post.

    Regarding your last point, I quite like Scott Anthony’s concise definition of innovation, describing it as “Something different that has an impact.” The ‘something different’ will very often involve change or disruption. I wasn’t advocating that innovation wouldn’t involve this, but that the culture change is just as important as any other changes.

  3. At the risk of bogging each other down on semantics, I feel that definition sucks.

    To me, the definition quoted is so vague as to be meaningless. It merely describes one property of innovation. Not putting gas in your car has an impact. But its hardly innovative. Not paying your employees has an impact, but isn’t innovative.

    However, getting your car to run better without gas has an impact, but is innovative.

    What defines innovation within an organisation?

    Does it change something that doesn’t work well into something that works better?

    Does it reduce the time to complete a revenue-generating task?

    Does it introduce a new process that moves the business forward?

    Does it free up resources from energy-sapping tasks allowing them to be more productive?

    Does it provide more yield for the same or less effort?

    Is it cheaper, better, faster?

    Ultimately, any business is about making money. Innovation must in some way, contribute to that. Show a high probability that it will happen and you’re half way there.

    Maybe you should have a think about what innovation actually is, because if you’re selling a way to manage it, you need to know, absolutely, empirically and unequivocally!

    Finally, maybe you should remember that a dinosaur was an innovator once. They may have created what you seek to change. Understand where they’re coming from before you tear up their backyard. They could be the first ones you want on side.

  4. Good post Kate, I think a lot of organisations just starting out in their innovation efforts would learn a lot from what you’ve described above.

    And as you state these are just “pointers” that you have come up with based on your own experiences so far. I don’t understand Neil’s initial criticism.

  5. I guess the problem is, once an initial comment has been made, subsequent responses to other comments take you away from the original premise. But isn’t that the way dialogue works – isn’t it why they call it a “thread” – the fabric is unwound?

    OK- Luke – my argument. Don’t you think an article should be written with an audience in mind?

    Kate has chosen to set out some pointers. Many are true – if somewhat obvious.

    But she’s chosen to address them to everyone, from the senior managers to erstwhile innovators. Isn’t that a bit like the Sermon on the Mount, isn’t she taking on the role of the great teacher, rather than a questioner?

    Now, if she had a history or reputation for successful innovation – like leading it in GE or within some large group that re-invented itself, that might be accepted. But what would people find if they looked at her CV, does she have such a pedigree?

    Nothing wrong with having no background in the topic you’re discussing, but given that, shouldn’t she ask more rather than presume to tell so much?

    The first rule of engaging with an audience is to respect them and acknowledge that they may have walked the walk when you are just setting out to talk the talk.

    This article assumes they’ve never done anything innovative – somehow they turned up one day and the business appeared. How do you think they’d feel about being told how to make their business innovative?

    Where are the examples of how this approach worked, or where others failed because they didn’t. Are there any?

    The greatest lessons I’ve ever learnt have been from those who I’ve set out to help. If you don’t open yourself up to listen to their experience and learn from them, you are denying yourself the greatest education you can have. That’s why I say ask more before you have the arrogance to assume you can preach to them.

    All of Kate’s pointers lack one vital element. Have you spotted it?

    Yep. the question mark. Not one question – OK, one schoolroom one at the end.

    Asking your audience a question makes them think about an answer. And if they don’t have one, you get the opportunity to plant yours. Even the New Testament is set out in question form. And that’s from someone who had all the answers!

    In my final point, Kate asserts “innovation isn’t all about disruption”. But that begs the question, what is innovation if its not about changing something to make it better?

    Can you innovate and not change anything, if you can, what’s the point of paying for something that doesn’t do anything – isn’t that snake oil?

    If I move pieces on a chess board, haven’t I changed them, haven’t I disrupted them?

    To make a statement to the contrary negates everything.

    She’s saying “don’t worry, my sort of innovation may not change anything.”

    So why should I buy it then?

    Then I ask, “what is innovation?”

    The answer I get is plain silly. Its an empty sound-bite that won’t stand up to investigation.

    But who says I’m right, all I’m doing is questioning her position.

    Sorry Kate – I’ve hijacked your article, but I hope it sets out my position.

    • Neil,
      I’m sure Kate is flattered to see you comparing her blogpost to the New Testament and the Sermon on the Mount! but do you not think that you are blowing things out of proportion and being overly critical?

      This is not part of a white paper or academic thesis, nor will it be interpreted literally by millions across the world! As far as I see it it’s a blogpost written by Kate in her personal capacity, hoping to contribute to the innovation debate, share some of her experience to date and perhaps start a bit of discussion (which has happened to some extent).

      I found it interesting, for example, to read your take on how best to define innovation as that is a good discussion to have, but I feel the rest of what you say descends into a self-righteous diatribe which is frankly unwarranted.

      If Kate is anything like me, she is still at the early stages of her career and blogging life and is still learning how to craft a good article and share her personal knowledge in the most effective way.

      The greatest lessons I’ve ever learnt have been from teachers, managers and leaders who offer constructive feedback and encouragement. Plain criticism is counterproductive and stifles healthy debate.

      Anyway, let’s get back to topic and discuss (in a respectful way!) how to create a culture that encourages innovation…

  6. I mean you no disrespect and admire your drive enormously.

    But you’re in a very different river now and paddling against an infinitely trickier current. Keep going and you’ll eventually reach the ocean. Its kind of big.

    Maybe you need some salt water in your lungs before you tell the captains of industry how to sail?

  7. Neil

    Ridiculous that someone so unlike “a captain of industry” and with so little track record would dare to suggest that Kate doesn’t know anything.

    Frankly, having read her material AND yours, I think you have a few things to learn from her.

    I wonder if she’d be all that interested in teaching you, though? Dinosaurs rarely have much headspace for new things.

  8. Neil: The concept of innovation can still be well-defined even if there isn’t a one-line, or even page-long, be-all and end-all (“absolute, empirical and unequivocal”) definition: much like in law, cases may often be argued both ways.
    At any rate, does it really matter whether a specific idea is “innovative”? I would say that it doesn’t, without compromising innovation as a meaningful concept.

    Your suggestion that Kate’s fewer years’ experience means that she is not in a position to provide high-quality (or indeed any) advice/input*, but may ask questions, is as offensive as it is archaic.
    Experience must be judged on quality not just quantity i.e. results not years.

    *Ironically this is the very thing which Spigit — Kate’s employer — strive to achieve for their clients (enabling anyone to propose their [innovative] ideas)!

    Kate: Keep up the great work!

  9. Joe, at no stage have I suggested I’m a “captain of industry” – I wish!

    In the second line of my first response I wrote: “How little I actually know and have a right to tell anyone”.

    Am I a dinosaur? What have I said to create that impression. I want to change most things. Very little of anything I’ve seen is worth keeping that I’ve seen so far. Change is progress – unless we work for the DWP, that is. Only joking.

    What I was trying to get across was the danger in asserting that anything is so when rarely can that ever be true. The nearest we can say is “in the past, this has been so”.

    Surely its far more Jurassic to suggest “this is what you should do” rather than “tell me what you do now and lets see if there is a way of doing it better.”

    Saying something should be done a certain way without opening the idea for discussion assumes you know there is nothing better. And that, truly is arrogant.

    Its disappointing to see a personal attack replace a point by point argument. But we have to take it on the chin some times. We can’t expect reason from everyone when we go social, nor can we chose our audience.

    Andy, I don’t know about you, but as time goes on I feel the need to ask more questions and offer less definitive statements. Do you not agree?

    Hopefully, what experience should show us is how big the ocean actually is and therefore how little we ultimately know of it.

    Kate and Luke, thanks for responding intelligently. Even though you may not agree with me!

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