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Five ways leaders can promote a culture of innovation

March 9, 2017

Corporate culture is a nebulous thing. Everyone recognizes when a culture is unhealthy, but most people struggle to pinpoint that ‘moment’ when it became toxic or contrary to what they were trying to promote. Therein lies the problem – culture doesn’t develop in a moment. It evolves over time. If you want to encourage a culture of innovation, by definition, the organization, and its leaders, should model the actions and behaviours one would expect of an innovative company (such as collaboration, creativity, and a disregard for the status quo). What I have come to realize is that the only way to affect culture is to strategically identify what affects culture and go about positively influencing those areas of the business over time.

My experience has shown me that there are really five things leaders can do to support the creation (and maintenance) of an innovative corporate culture:

  1.  Determine what needs to be done and why, then get out of the way.

Leaders identify where we need innovation in our business and why. The mission should tie directly to the corporate strategy. Identifying what we are unwilling to entertain as an idea and the real-world constraints that teams have to deal with is an important part of encouraging innovation. For example, if the budget is $50K, the innovation team should be aware of that.

Once the “what” and “why” have been clearly defined, leaders need to step out of the way and allow diverse teams of employees to figure out the “how”. They are likely closer to the work and the customer than the leaders are, so engaging their wisdom, expertise, and energy makes sense. A leader that directs the innovation team will almost always cause the team to disengage.

  1.  Imbed a system of innovation in the organization.

If you truly want innovation, you need a system – one that includes education, tools, and metrics to both train and align your team. The system needs to be integrated into how you operate your business on a regular basis. From a leadership perspective, that may mean changing some of your metrics, or adjusting how team meetings are run in order to reinforce learning and emphasize the importance of innovation. If you want people thinking about innovation, it needs to become part of every discussion – both formal meetings and informal water cooler chatter.

  1.  Engage diverse groups of people and allow them freedom in the framework.

The strongest leaders engage a diverse group of people from all over the company to help drive innovation. They see the exponential kick that comes from channeling all of that knowledge and energy and focusing it on solving a problem or taking advantage of an opportunity that leaders define as the mission (the “what” and “why”).

Engaging a team doesn’t absolve leaders from accountability. Leaders are still responsible for guiding the team and ensuring deadlines are met and progress is being made. But loosening the reins, and letting the team generate the innovation, is key to the process. The minute a leader steps in and takes over, any excitement the process has generated within the team dies.

  1.  Celebrate failure.

As adults, we avoid failure at all costs. We see it as mark against us and worry that others may see us as inept or incapable. What if we started to throw parties when we fail quickly and halt investment in something that is not going to generate the result we were planning for? I can tell you that the first time you do it, people will be highly uncomfortable. But, the more often you celebrate failure as a learning experience, the more open people will be to bring forward new ideas and try new things.

Sending a powerful signal that failing is OK tells employees that failing is part of the learning experience.

  1.  Lead by example.

If we want to establish an innovative culture, leaders need to lead by example. What does that mean? First, be willing to say, “I don’t know”, “I need help” and “I fail a lot”. Next, ask others for help and promote collaboration by modelling it. Finally, acknowledge and share learnings from your own mistakes so those around you see that it is safe for them to do the same.

 

Sounds easy, right? It’s actually surprisingly difficult to put into practice consistently. As soon as times get tight, leaders want to jump into the fray and take control. When the CEO is around, the LAST thing an employee wants to do is acknowledge that they made a mistake or need some input to solve a problem.

Culture develops over time and with consistency of behaviour. If you want to lead an innovative culture, you have to choose the right behaviour every day -- not just when it’s easy. With that consistency will come an evolution of culture. The minute you fall back into your old ways, people will see innovation as the next ‘program or flavour of the month’ and go back to the way they’ve always done things too – and that doesn’t sound very innovative to me.

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