5 Ways to Foster a Culture of Innovation

As the modern business environment continues to evolve into a more complex and competitive landscape, it’s become increasingly important for companies to tap into their creative side and push boundaries with new ideas.

Image from page 117 of "Studies in the decorative art of Japan" (1910)

In fact, an IBM survey last year revealed that 1,500 CEOs in 60 countries believed creativity was the most crucial factor for future success. But, as the Harvard Business Review’s Tony Schwartz asked his readers, are CEOs and senior leaders really willing to make the transformational moves that will foster a true culture of innovation in their companies?

It’s not an easy thing to do. Executive teams can’t all of a sudden decide to simply encourage innovation and see what happens. Even worse, they can’t just hope innovation will occur organically.
TLNT (one of my favorite sites, by the way) published a great article on the topic. The headline was perfect: Workplace Innovation is Not Spontaneous. Author Susan Lesser discusses how most companies will need to make significant changes to their existing climate if they hope to foster a culture of innovation.

Lesser provides five things that senior leaders should consider and her suggestions are crucial reminders for managers at expansion stage companies. Change can require significant effort and commitment, two things that many companies are not willing to exert. But in order to drive innovation and build great companies, change must occur. After all, nowhere in the definition of “innovation” will you find “status quo.”

If your management team is ready to commit to making the changes that will spark innovation, here are the five things Lesser suggests executives teams must do (along with my thoughts on each of them):

Risk-taking Must be Rewarded

Operationally-minded companies need to shift to emphasize a more entrepreneurial bent by encouraging employees to take risks and attempt initiatives that are beyond the scope of their company’s traditional operating boundaries. Rewards don’t always need to be monetary, but a carefully crafted system of reward and recognition for risk-taking will foster the creative spirit that sparks innovation.

Mistake-making Must be Tolerated

I’ve heard OpenView Managing Partner Scott Maxwell tell his employees that, “If you’re not making mistakes, you’re doing something wrong.” In order to challenge status quo and find better ways to do things, mistakes will be made. A supportive environment in which employees are encouraged to learn from them will create a workplace that allows experimentation and testing new ideas.

Communication Must be Open

Make your employees aware of both attempts at creativity and the failures made during those attempts. Everyone at the company should be encouraged to submit suggestions for improvement and they should be taken seriously. If employees feel that their ideas for improvement will be given thoughtful consideration, management teams are more likely to learn about areas that could be changed to critically influence the company’s future success.

Leaders Must Hire Stronger People Than Themselves

When OpenView hired my colleague, Vic Mahillon, the manager of OpenView Labs, Brian Zimmerman, asked me if I thought he would be a better recruiter than me. My response was that I hoped he would be. That’s incredibly important for managers to remember when they hire new talent. True leaders must be comfortable hiring and nurturing stronger people than themselves. The strongest leaders surround themselves with the best and brightest talent available, not lesser employees that they can simply micromanage.

Once that talent is on board, it’s critical for managers to listen to their ideas and trust their expertise, particularly if it differs from their own. A new employee’s viewpoint may also help shed light on problem areas that have been overlooked and aid in the implementation of necessary changes to the company’s current processes.

A System of Measure Must be Implemented

Without actual measurements, you may not know with certainty which direction your company’s culture is trending — or whether it’s changing at all. Implementing a tool that quantifies a company-wide perspective on leadership, communication, and teamwork will serve as an essential guide in the process of creating an innovation-centric culture.

Are you already fostering an innovative culture within your company? What things are you doing to encourage that creativity?

If you need more help getting started, Idea Champions co-founder Mitch Ditkoff composed a list of 50 ways to foster a culture of innovation. The general idea is that companies need to remove the fear of failure, promote personal freedom and trust, and consistently encourage creativity — even with the occasional cost  of mistakes being made.

If employees are afraid to take risks or don’t feel comfortable sharing their ideas, status quo is inevitable and innovation is impossible.

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