Eric van Niekerk – Research Lead, Innocentrix

When thinking of global innovation powerhouses, typical examples like Google, Apple and IBM come to mind. But how have these organisations climbed so successfully to the top of the innovation food chain? Why is it that they were the ones with the disruptive ideas and the game-changing inventions? Well, a large factor contributing to their innovation success is the notion of building a culture of innovation. Through fostering a culture of creativity and innovation within the workplace, these organisational innovation champions have inspired members of the organisation to actively contribute towards innovation practices.

To begin with, every organisation has its own unique organisational culture (some naturally more innovative than others). But this culture is not cast in stone – and while it may be challenging to influence ingrained corporate cultures, it is far from impossible. The following 4 steps act as a guide on how to begin building a culture of innovation within your own organisation.

1 – Get leadership involved

One of the first challenges faced when building a culture of innovation within an organisation is how to get employees passionate about innovation. Our recommendation is that you start from the top, with the organisation’s leaders.

When building a culture of innovation within an organisation the message needs to come from the top. Having the organisation CEO or other high-profile C-level executives champion innovation will greatly increase the changes of other employees coming aboard. Involvement from leaders and figureheads within the organisation shows commitment to innovation, and communicates that it is a worthy endeavour for other employees to involve themselves with.

2 – Do not fear failure, rather build confidence

Traditional corporate culture has taught us that failure is unacceptable. This standpoint is understandable, as a failure in a large corporate organisations could mean losing a great deal of money. But this fear of failure will tie an organisation’s hands when it comes to innovation:

Innovation often carries a bad stigma of encouraging risk and failure – a behaviour very unfamiliar to corporate organisations. The message of risk taking is often poorly communicated and misinterpreted. Innovation is not meant to encourage reckless behaviour and failure, rather, innovation thrives in a culture where failure is not seen as a totally taboo outcome. For innovation to really shine, people should be allowed to innovate within a realm where they may sometimes fail, but will be encouraged to try again. Failure is not inherently part of innovation, but accepting failure is. How do you accomplish this in your organisation?

In an organisation where failure is seen as part of the learning experience, employees will be less afraid to try out new ideas, or to openly contribute to an innovation project. A culture where employees envision success rather than fear failure is one that breeds creativity and innovation. “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”

3 – Communicate innovation

Innovation can still be a foreign topic to many. Understanding why innovation is important, and what it involves, is key in building a spirit of innovation. This may seem like a basic rule, but it is still one that is often overlooked or not given appropriate attention. You might have defined innovation for your organisation and you might have an innovation strategy, but is this meaningful for the people on the ground? Do they understand how it is relevant to them and why they should bother? Innovation in one person’s mind might be radically different from the view of the person next to them. Are we on the same page, commonly working towards the same goal – and by the way, when last did you review that definition and strategy?

Innovation is not about random creative output. An organisation’s innovation goals should ultimately align with their core business strategy. It is important for every employee to understand their role in the innovation drive of an organisation, and thus know how to contribute meaningfully. In this way, an organisation’s innovation intent is showcased: understanding the motivation behind innovation, why it’s important, and how one can contribute, will demystify the concept of innovation for employees, making it a more approachable and manageable topic in the work place.

To facilitate an open communication process, it is important to regularly communicate the state of innovation within the organisation – inform employees of innovation progress, be it success or failure. This will allow members of the organisation to learn from the overall innovation experience, and to understand how their contributions affect the innovation drive. It will also show that innovation is an ongoing process, open for participation at all times.

Regular, open communication can bring innovation from an airy concept to a concrete reality as a real and impactful aspect of the organisation. Fostering an understanding of the innovation process throughout the organisation will encourage buy-in from employees, and will ensure that innovation is a topic that is alive in the conversations happening around the office.

4 – Involve employees

Tying in with properly communicated innovation goals means involving employees in the innovation process. Collaboration lies at the heart of innovation, this is what will ultimately lead to better results and deeper impact. This engagement can be facilitated by innovation management software, and can be encouraged through innovation rewards.

Highlighting the success of innovative employees, and showcasing innovation champions in an organisation, will humanise the concept of innovation. By rewarding human effort in a visible and sustainable way, the potential innovation power of an individual employee can be highlighted, encouraging other individuals to do the same. It is no secret that innovation reward programmes start leaning towards more recognition focused approaches. Consider the value of this to the modern knowledge worker and act accordingly.

In conclusion

It is important to remember that each organisation has a unique culture, maintained by a multitude of different factors. Building a culture for innovation takes time and persistence, understanding what works and what not for your organisation. The above steps should however, provide a guideline of where to start. Innovation should be an organisation-wide effort, driven by leaders and employees alike.