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Culture of Innovation: The First 10 Things Your Team Needs to Know

Jun 22, 2020

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Creating a culture of innovation takes companywide effort—yet your employees can't give full effort on something they don't fully grasp. 

If your goal is to make creating a culture of innovation easier and more effective, here are 10 talking points to share with your staff, to generate discussion and make sure they're on board.  

What is innovation? 

Contrary to popular belief, innovation is not the same as creativity. Creativity involves generating new ideasinnovation is developing those ideas, making sure they're viable, and turning them into a reality. 

Likewise, invention is distinct from innovation: the former refers to coming up with something new; innovation is improving on a product or technology that already exists. 

Why innovation matters: a familiar example

Before Apple launched the first iPhone in 2007, the name synonymous with mobile phones was Blackberry. Blackberry released its first device in 1999. In 2016, the company stopped making phones.

Fun fact: That same year (on Sept. 16, 2016), Apple released the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus.

This is one example of how innovation correlates with profitability—and how lack of innovation can spell a company's demise.

If innovation is the secret sauce, it follows that it requires a culture of innovation to keep it going strong. 

What a culture of innovation looks like in practice

"Think big. Take risk. Be persistent." 
Peter McPherson, former president of Michigan State University

For context, Peter McPherson is the university president who championed the creation of the new Michigan State University College of Human Medicine headquarters in Grand Rapids. More precisely, when approached with this novel idea by Peter Secchia, McPherson had the vision to ask, "What's our next step?" 

If you're looking to create a culture of innovation, "What's our next step?" is a perennially useful question.

In McPherson's case, that question led to a $90 million medical facility that was fully funded from Day One, and continues to enroll hundreds of students each year, including impressive numbers of students from underrepresented groups in medicine. 

Other characteristics of a culture of innovation 

In addition to creativity and curiosity:
  • Autonomy 
  • Flexibility
  • Initiative
  • Questioning the status quo
  • Willingness to fail

What other words would you add to this list? Be sure to leave a comment below.

Innovation begs this question

"Lesson learned: Do one thing great, not do many things good. Or in our case, we were doing many things kinda crappy." Sean Percival, former vice president of marketing, MySpace

The starting question of all true innovation at work: "What business are we in?" Or as my entrepreneurial father would say, "What problem do you solve?" The answer to both questions—that first one in particular— deserves more than a superficial answer.

As an example, Netflix is in the entertainment business; Blockbuster was in the video-rental business. Spotify's mission is "to unlock the potential of human creativity." They've got 96 million subscribers backing this cause. Tower Records? They were in the record business.

Get together with your team, determine the true business you are in, and make sure everyone in your company can articulate the answer without hesitation. 

Innovation requires time ... 

“Listen to anybody with an idea.” — William McKnight, former general manager of 3M, 1914

3M is famous for its "15 percent rule," which lets employees spend 15 percent of their work time exploring ideas that could turn into new products. And while Post-it notes are not part of 3M's 15 percent rule, they illustrate the power of innovation at work. 

How much time do you allow your employees to generate new ideas (creativity) and test those ideas for market potential (innovation)? 

... and new blood

Let's talk for a moment about how a culture of innovation requires new blood. If you're serious about creating a culture of innovation, surround yourself with people who see the world differently from you—and experience it differently, because of age, race, gender and so forth.

This is how innovation happens.

Example: Long before such conversations were front and center, a young woman from Harlem overcame all cultural odds to became a medical doctor. Her name was Patricia Bath. Early in her ophthalmology career, she realized that blindness was far more prevalent in her Harlem patients than it was in her patients at (predominantly white) Columbia University.

This led Dr. Bath to a lifetime of serving a population whose vision problems had previously gone undetected. You can read online about her life of service, her inventions and multiple patents.

The point is, a culture of innovation requires multiple perspectives—this also includes so-called millennials.

Why? Because they grew up with technology that many of us did not. They expect things we did not —like meal delivery and telemedicine. And in case you hadn't noticed, millennials are generally not afraid to give their unvarnished opinion.

Maybe there's a place for that. 

Innovation involves failure

If you don't believe me, grab a New Coke (ha ha) and watch this inspiring clip from Michael Jordan, on failure.

 

A culture of innovation starts with who you hire

A friend of mine recently shared how in interviews, he asks every job candidate, "Tell me about a time you messed up." I love this.

If you ask candidates this question (or a variation), you immediate get a glimpse into ...

  • their world and thought process
  • the size of their world (how big was their "mess-up"?)
  • their problem-solving skills or lack thereof
  • their propensity for risk/ingenuity vs. propensity for compliance

Another sign of innovation-minded candidates: those who can gracefully give difficult feedback—yes, even to the boss—rather than holding it in, watering it down, or coming forth with no new thoughts at all.

Innovation requires respect and integration 

I know that sounds a little soap-boxy. But here's what I mean: Innovation implies neither flying by the seat of your pants, nor adhering to a rigid set of behaviors. Instead, it requires integrating what may seem like conflicting priorities: stability and growth, order and creativity, planning and spontaneity.

Rarely is this integration easy. I have known organizations that suffered financially and emotionally, not because they had two types of peoplethose who could not think outside the box, and those who could not think inside the boxbut because neither side could accept the other's contributions.

And neither side could survive without the other. 

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