How to Foster a Culture of Innovation at Your Company

Your business is in it to win it. Winning consistently over decades takes constant work on your innovation strategy, because things change. When people gave up their buggies for cars, horseshoe salesmen had to embrace tires and spark plugs or starve. When news migrated from print to online outlets, newspaper journalists had to immigrate along with it or hang up their credentials. Whatever your business is doing right now, it’s almost certain that times and technologies will change, and you’ll be doing something different one day — or be in the unsavory business of going out of business.

By becoming and remaining innovative, your company can blaze the way. You can literally steer the market in new directions. You won’t be the one caught midstream with 800 cases of horseshoes nobody wants; you’ll be the first one in town to open a gas station and tire repair shop. That’s what innovation can do. So, how do you do innovation?

Innovation Isn’t Just a Team Effort

When the tides of the time and technology change, will your company be left in the sand, or leading the way to the vast sea that lies waiting to be discovered?

Too often, an ‘innovation team’ is established. They’re the guys and gals who innovate, while everybody else produces horseshoes. Companies that are resoundingly successful at innovation strategy don’t relegate their innovation tasks to a single group of people in the basement, just behind the boiler room and beside the mop closet.

Innovation is a top-down, bottom-up, side-to-side way of life. These companies open up the lines of communication and not just allow, but encourage, all employees to contribute great ideas. Some will be crazy. Some outright ludicrous. Some will be brilliant. A few will look ludicrous, but upon further examination, reveal genius.

Innovative companies do need to provide workers with innovation software. Many will be too shy to come to their manager or open up in a meeting with what might seem like a preposterous idea. This type of software encourages submissions without putting anyone in the spotlight. Those passed by can be quietly, discreetly dismissed. Promising ideas can be pushed forward for further development.

Innovation Requires Free Time & Inspiration

An innovation strategy does not thrive in a workplace that’s pedal to the metal from 7AM to 7PM. Without free time, there is no free thinking, and without free thinking, there is no innovation. Study the companies that are powerful innovators, like the tech companies in Silicon Valley. Most provide workers with free time during the day, with which they can create and brainstorm, allowing thoughts to flourish. They also provide leisure areas, indoor and outdoor recreation spaces, games, and even reading material to spark creative thought and encourage ideation.

Consider Holding Contests as Part to Create a Culture of Innovation

Come on in, innovation. We’ve been expecting you.

Many companies also have lots of success with innovation contests. These contests can be limited to a day or a few days, or can be ongoing. Others make up rewards systems for successful innovators, such as handing out wooden nickels or some other trivial ‘award’, but these rewards often become highly valued across the organization. If you’re having trouble getting the masses on board with your cross-company innovation, contests can liven things up considerably.

Accept Risks, Reward Successes

Ah, the flipside of the innovation strategy: failure. Yes, whether your innovation is done by a carefully-selected, well-groomed group of five or by your entire team, there will be failures. Embrace them. All failures have potential, even if it is only to learn some valuable lessons for the next round of innovation about what not to do. Reward effort, not just innovations that make it to market (though you should definitely offer praise for those, too).

Which would workers rather have: a company that is okay with an occasional screw up or bosses that will punish anything short of total success? Some companies even embrace their failures with a Wall of Shame or other memorial, which serves to highlight the lessons learned, show good humor about past mistakes, and helps the entire organization be willing to offer up those radical off-the-wall ideas that just may hold some promise. Did anyone expect the entire developed world to be chasing fictional cartoon characters around town with their smartphones all summer? We didn’t either. That’s innovation for you!

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