How Communications Can Create a Culture of Innovation in Your Company

Without question, the pace of the American workplace is getting faster, driven largely by the opportunities afforded by digital innovation, data management and advanced manufacturing and logistics. Even large companies like General Electric are talking about breaking down layers, incubating new ideas and “failing fast.” It’s a tall order. How do you change the culture of traditional, top-down organization to one that looks and acts more like a startup?

First off, let’s get real. No major corporation is going to be as nimble as a first year startup. But, would you really want to be? There are advantages to being a major player in your industry. Forget the ping-pong tables and flip flops, and give employees what they really crave — the space to develop new ideas. If you do it right, you’ll reap the rewards of innovation while still enjoying the economies of scale a larger company can provide. Here’s how:

Let people congregate around ideas and interest areas– Few employees enjoy the feeling of being locked into a silo. Yet, this is the structure that many companies employ, where employees from other divisions or even other closely related departments are regarded with suspicion. It’s a byproduct of 20th Century corporate cultures where leaders jockey for position, influence and budgets, and their employees pay the price. The good news is, you can help break down those barriers by creating opportunities for employees to share and follow ideas that excite them.

For instance, large corporations like Eli Lilly have made full use of SharePoint to allow employees to congregate around certain broad interest areas, like digital health, women in management, and much, much more. Employees from any department can share articles that they have read online on the subject with each other, and often have meetups among the group to hear speakers from inside and outside the company on the subject. A “digest” of current sharings goes to employee email for those who have joined the group. It’s a great way to let your people cross-pollinate ideas.

Sponsor internal idea festivals– If there is one overriding area of opportunity, or one particular skill set that you need your company to rally around, it may actually pay to bring the “conference” to your employees, instead of the other way around. I did this recently for a major company in the diagnostics industry that needed to understand the innovations happening in digital health. We shipped their seniormost employees from around the world to corporate headquarters and brought the best speakers and innovators in the space to the company to do a one-day conference. The effects were amazing. It gave everyone in the company permission to pursue their ideas, and with senior management now educated to the possibilities, it fast tracked innovation organization wide.

Let the outside in– Corporations are often so insular that they feel they have to build everything themselves from the ground up; or, conversely, purchase a rising company that has an expertise, service, or a product extension they need. It’s an expensive way to go, in any case.

But some companies are starting to actually invite entrepreneurs to mentor with their companies, even testing out the startup’s products through their corporate network. A good example of this is one of my clients, The Louisville Innovation Summit, a conference that focuses on the future of Aging Care. It is hosted by a group of Founding Sponsors for the event, including Delta Dental of Kentucky, Humana, Kindred Healthcare, PharMerica, Signature HealthCARE and Trilogy Health Services­ ­­– all major corporations headquartered in Louisville, the world’s largest center for Aging Care Companies. As part of the conference, a Startup Pitch event is held that challenges the world’s best Aging Care startups to come forward. The winner gets cash prizes and the chance to mentor with and potentially test market through one of the Founding partners. If you want to see this in action, check out the 2016 Louisville Innovation Summit . It’s a win-win for everyone. The entrepreneur gets the chance to do extensive real world testing of their product or service, and the corporation gets access to the best innovations first.

Not every company can create an event like the Louisville Innovation Summit. But you can do it on a much smaller scale by offering your people as mentors for local university accelerator services, or by inviting in entrepreneurs at industry accelerators to come in to do competitions/demonstrations at your company. When you do, don’t do it in a vacuum. Let your employees from all areas attend, and learn. Then report about the event widely to your employees, organization-wide.

Create a space for new ideas — Many companies, like Google or 3M for instance, have innovation baked into their culture, and have whole divisions devoted to developing moonshots in certain areas. What are your moonshots? Do you have a space where innovators from within your company can try out ideas? Do you have multi-disciplinary resources available to them to help them develop out their ideas with business plans, prototypes, and the like? No? Then maybe its time to create an innovation lab, where employees and even outside entrepreneurs can pilot ideas on a controlled scale, and fail– or succeed– fast.

Improve your management training — This is my key piece of advice, and one that too many companies miss. If you want to create a true culture of innovation, that directive needs to come from the top — your CEO — then filter down even to your line managers, who impart that culture on a daily basis to employees. None of this will happen unless you train management to welcome innovation, and show them what to do with new ideas when they come to their doorstep.

Here’s a typical scenario for what happens when you forget this step: CEO makes a speech or has a little event to celebrate innovation. Employee surveys show good reviews and there is a little bounce in excitement for the future at the company. A few weeks later, an employee comes to his or her manager with an idea that could potentially create a new, novel product line for the company. But, it’s far outside of the parameters of the department. They don’t have the budget to develop or test it and the manager doesn’t want to ruffle any feathers by asking. So the employee is told to shut up and sit down. And everyone goes back to business as usual.

How much better would it be, then, if everyone in the company had access to templates and advice for developing a basic business plan for their ideas, and mentors within the company who could help them realistically vet their ideas? And what if every manager in the company knew how to encourage that employee, and get them to those proper resources?

There’s no question that the pace of American business is getting faster all the time. Companies that make the cultural commitment to innovation will be rewarded with more loyal and engaged employees, along with the profit-opportunities and improved efficiencies that come with an entrepreneurial mindset.

Is your company up to the challenge?

By Susan Gosselin, Principal of GosselinPR. For more information, visit our website at http://www.gosselinpr.com.