How to establish an ‘Innovation culture’

The mindset, the components, the tools

Modern corporations realize that, to remain competitive, they need to systematically innovate, to embrace real innovation as part of their ‘business as usual’ mode. Innovation should happen naturally, on a daily basis, triggered primarily by employees who continuously look for opportunities for new products, services and value creation.

Although the need for innovation is clear, there are plenty of failed innovation transformation programmes out there: companies are making significant investments in order to incorporate innovation practices and spirit but in many cases the result is far from successful. The missing element preventing such investments from success is usually the so called ‘innovation culture’.

To achieve this new mind-set, the ‘innovation culture’, companies need to invest in transformation programmes introducing a new way of thinking. The transition takes time and requires a new mentality for both executives and employees

The following describe components of the innovation culture:

Experimentation mindset

The level of innovation of a corporation, heavily depends on the readiness and will of its employees to experiment with novel ideas and concepts, to build prototypes, to investigate opportunities for novel products and services; It depends on the level of support this ‘experimentation culture’ receives from the leadership of the corporation.

Both employees and leadership need to adapt and inherit a new attitude for experimentation, risk taking and failure: failure, in an innovation context, is perfectly acceptable

In fact, failure is part of the overall innovation process, since it can feedback significant insights, results, metrics and findings for the idea itself, the prototype or even the process.

Following practices like ‘rapid prototyping’ and ‘fail fast’, ideas can be quickly tested from real users, in order to make informed decisions, as soon as possible and at minimum cost. For instance, in a rapid prototyping scenario, the team might realize early enough that, although the prototype looks good and is working fine, the predefined success criteria and/or user expectations are not met. Hence, the team has enough information to make good product development decisions, like to evaluate if this gap can be fixed under acceptable cost and thus continue iterating or ‘kill’ the product.

In any case, this rapid prototyping approach with fast iterations and frequent user testing/feedback, keeps the overall cost low and allows informed product development decisions.

Ideas sharing and collaboration

Employees need to enter a mode of ‘information sharing’ and collaboration; they need to be ready to share ideas, to provide constructive feedback and collaborate.

Corporations need to offer a channel for employees to register their ideas and share them with the right teams and divisions; given the right motivation and culture, this channel will enable a stream of ideas and form an ‘internal market’ where employees discover ideas, self-organize into cross-functional teams, experiment and pitch their projects to senior leadership; the most promising cases are then selected for investment in additional rapid prototyping cycles. An always-on ideation, collaboration and intrapreneurial mode.

Flexibility of roles

Innovation is incompatible with strict roles, complex organizational charts and isolated responsibility areas. Companies truly investing in innovation, offer their employees flexibility to go beyond their formal role and skip process and bureaucracy in order to explore their ideas further. Employees can easily form teams and start working on ‘side innovation projects’ without formal approvals or resource assignments. They can use office space designed to support innovation and creative thinking; they can easily get the equipment and technology resources needed to build their idea.

Modern innovation tools and processes

Successful innovation programmes also need special processes, techniques and practices. Modern companies use a set of tools focusing on cross-functional team collaboration — solving a well-defined problem via ideation, prototyping and user feedback iterations.

‘Design sprints’ and similar, customized workshops are very popular: multidisciplinary teams work together for a short period of time (3–5 days) to define the problem, then generate ideas, pick the most promising ones, build wireframes and prototypes to be then tested with real users. Feedback from users is then used to make informed decisions about next iterations and the product development plan.

In other cases, companies organize large scale ideation processes, such as hackathons, with the objective to generate large sets of ideas and prototypes addressing a particular problem defined upfront.

Innovation gamification

Properly designed gamification programmes can have major positive impact on innovation culture: Companies can identify those business activities which relate to innovation, capture them in proper structures and assign weight factors to denote their relative importance. Employees performing these activities accumulate points which are then aggregated across the structure of the company (teams, divisions, products, geographies). Points are used primarily to identify, recognize and celebrate top-innovators — for example through an ‘innovation leader board’ visible across the company (points could be translated to monetary or other business awards). Such programmes provide a strong motivation for people to engage with innovation processes. Top innovators gain reputation, visibility and opportunities to communicate their ideas and ‘make it happen’.

Access to technology and knowledge

Employees need to have access to latest technologies and related knowledge. Companies need to introduce programmes targeting systematic, efficient knowledge and expertise sharing among employees and teams. In many cases, specially configured and equipped office spaces might also help in this direction — for instance a makerspace, exposing technology, equipment and devices to facilitate rapid prototyping and experimentation.

Transition to the ‘innovation culture’ is difficult and expensive. It heavily depends both on the strategy of the corporation and the mentality of the workforce: the value system in reference to experimentation, collaboration, expertise and knowledge sharing. The company needs to enter — as a single entity, both employees and management — a mode of continuous searching for opportunities for better products and services that bring value to users, employees, the company, the market, the society.