A practical guide to creating a culture of innovation

Innovation is necessary to stay competitive in today’s market as a company and as an individual. I have heard of many promising innovations or transformations undertaken by organizations and departments that end up in failure. The reason for failure? Adoption, the vision did not resonate, people did not understand, it didn’t stick, and many more. This guide is to get to the root of why your big idea did not stick with people and how to get people to generate innovative ideas.

1.    Communicate a compelling narrative about the vision: Let’s say a department or organization communicates the following vision: “We will grow our company by being innovative and adding value to consumers.” What’s wrong with this statement? Nothing. However, we need to effectively tell a story about how the vision resonates with the individual’s cause and how it effectively adds value. The organization’s vision is something the individual should feel strongly about that he or she will forego the competitor organizations’ salary to be part of the journey to create something amazing. Facebook, for example, has done a great job of communicating their vision and mission. Facebook’s mission is “to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” People use Facebook “to stay connected with friends and family, to discover what’s going on in the world, and to share and express what matters to them.” Facebook continuously innovates and makes strategic acquisitions to further this vision. Anyone I have met at Facebook believes in and connects with the vision that they work countless hours and defend the company through troubled times. If you want people to be innovative and bring their organizations to success during transformations, it is imperative that you clearly and effectively communicate that vision and align it to their personal mission.

2.    Foster trust: To try new things you need to have an environment where an individual feels empowered to speak up, try new things, raise their hand and ask for help. We do so with the confidence that our boss or colleagues will be there to support us. Let me quote Brene Brown: “Trust is the stacking and layering of small moments and reciprocal vulnerability over time.” When trust is not built we often feel forced to lie, hide mistakes, act as if we know how to do something (when we really don’t know), and fail to admit that we need help out of fear of humiliation, reprisal or finding ourselves on the shortlist of a layoff. American Airlines is a perfect [bad] example where the employees did not have the trust of their teams to feel empowered to do what is right and speak up while a passenger was being dragged out of the plane like an animal. Trust is when an individual shows up to work and can be his or her authentic self and feel empowered. His/her managers provide support and continuously have open conversations about elevating people versus improving the numbers or walking around and trying to catch you doing something your not supposed to.

3.    Have worthy rivals: Simply said, your rivals will show you where your weaknesses lie. You cannot be your best self or bring innovative ideas forward if you think you are the best and avoid being in situations where you are challenged. This leads you to accept the status quo and be crushed by your rivals. It is crucial to have a worthwhile rival to keep you on your toes and force you to confront your weaknesses so that you can address them and elevate yourself. You might be someone’s rival right now and that person may be putting in the hard work to address his or her weaknesses. Innovation requires a healthy dose of rivalry to generate innovative thinking and ideas.

4.    Have flexibility to pivot – Not all ideas are a success. You need to have the flexibility to change direction when you feel the value is no longer there. If the environment has incentives that measure success on outputs, you will not have great ideas. You will have compliance to meet those numbers. The environment should be such that it allows you to blow up your idea before someone else does. Companies demonstrate this by continuously blowing up their business before the market does, even when they were at their peak. Netflix did this by blowing its idea of delivering DVDs by mail to streaming, and Apple did this by entering the personal computing space. These companies did not go down the same path. They realized that, despite having a good idea, they needed to pivot to a better idea that will generate more value. Yes, it will be hard, but this is why you need to ensure the vision is communicated effectively and trust is embedded within your teams to handle the stress this is going to bring.

5.    Have the courage to lead: Leading may sound easy but it is far from it. Leadership is a lifestyle. It is thankless and solitary. You do not become a leader by attending an offsite or company event. You need to invest in the growth of others. Results are not immediate and you will often feel like no progress was made. You will need to continuously show up and lead others to see that vision. Lead at the front of change and practice extreme ownership.

6.    Live with a growth mindset: Nothing is a failure; it’s just an option that did not work at that time. Failure gives us time to re-group and apply new thinking to a problem. Innovation is hard, especially when it is so broad that many will not see the value early on. But going through this you will learn and incrementally get better at putting the best, innovative idea forward. Many leaders will share how many times they failed, but they just figured out that they need to keep trying a different approach if they believe in their mission. Always see things from a different perspective and change the narrative to yourself. Many departments have audacious goals and many cannot see the benefit of how they will get there. All they happen to see are the failures and the insanity around the ideas. But if we were to change our perspectives, we’d be forced to think broader and challenge ourselves, perhaps gain technology fluency, participate in something world-class and get a free education while we’re at it.

I’m mindful that the list I outline here is not exhaustive. But at least it’s something to start with when it comes to creating a culture where you are empowering people to be innovative.

This post was inspired by Simon Sinek.

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