Creating a Culture that Encourages Innovation

By: Kate Bennet | March 2, 2011

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

Don’t leave employees’ ideas hanging. Have a process for capturing ideas and feedback from all levels of the organization, 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 organization is looking for.

Encourage employee movement. Encourage moves both within and outside (for example as loans or secondments) the organization. Changing employees’ physical environment will speed the impression that change is acceptable, enable employees to develop cross-organization 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 organization can help align employees’ creativity with the organization’s strategic goals.

Make employees comfortable with what is happening, and give them options. The organization 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 formalizing 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 organizations, for example, offer employees grants to start their own business if they take redundancy.

2. Employees

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

Have side projects. Work with people inside and outside the organization. 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 organization 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 organization 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 organization 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 organization 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.