Thought leaders, emerging technology, and digital disruption all have one thing in common—they are the result of being exposed to a culture of innovation.
The real game changers don’t come from a basement where one person is creating the next big thing in a vacuum. Well, except for Nikola Tesla and his experiments at Wardenclyffe Tower, but that’s another story entirely.
No, the concept of a genius locked away in an attic inventing something incredible is great for movie plots, but not so great for companies that actually want to pursue true innovation in their field. And for companies that want to be in business in the next 10 years, the pursuit of innovation should be near the top of the list in terms of organizational goals.
This is because technological changes and disruption among virtually every industry are accelerating, not declining. If your industry hasn’t been disrupted yet, there’s a good chance it may be soon. One of the reasons is that networks are connecting people and organizations on a global level like never before.
Innovation doesn't exist in the IT department alone—it has to be pervasive throughout the company. This is why creating a culture of innovation is so important. But as everyone knows, creating a culture is easier said than done, so no—throwing a ping pong table in the break room isn’t going to cut it.
But we do have a few tips for building a culture of innovation at your organization; let’s jump in!
Innovation In The Modern Workplace
Jason Calacanis, legendary technology investor, echos what tech cult classics like Lean Startup and others have realized—innovation is an iterative process of continuous improvement. In order to harvest the fruits of an iterative process, organizations need a guiding vision, the proper structure, and rules that simultaneously allow for rapid development and patience. These need to be present in everything the organization does, not just bullet points on a PowerPoint presented once a quarter.
In order for that type of omnipresence, these principles need to be completely baked into the culture of the organization so that when a problem or question arises, there is no doubt in anybody’s mind what is the ‘right thing to do’ because it happens naturally.
But creating a culture of innovation doesn’t happen overnight, and sending out a company-wide memo won’t do the trick either.
Fostering a culture of innovation requires leaders to provide the proper environment where innovation can flourish. This can occur on a large or small scale. An example of a large-scale innovation might be an organization undergoing a digital transformation. An instance of a small-scale innovation might be dramatically improving a process, like HelloSign making it easier for Instacart to onboard thousands of personal shoppers without any physical paperwork. Read the details of Instacart leveraged the HelloSign API to automate their onboarding process in our case study.
The point is, don’t let the idea of creating a culture of innovation intimidate you; just get started! Here are a few ideas that might help.
Ways To Create A Culture Of Innovation
Every organization is different, so feel free to pick and choose through some of the most popular ways to encourage innovation at your workplace.
Dedicate time to innovation. 3M has possibly the most famous instance of this practice via its 15% program—employees are allowed (and encouraged!) to spend 15% of their time working on anything they want. This, of course, is how the Post-It note came to be. What you may not know is that 3M has obtained 22,800 patents as a result of the 15% program! The catch is that anything employees dream up during that time belongs to 3M. Similarly, Google awards its employees 20% of their paid for innovation, which is how Gmail (among other products) was born.
Reward innovation. If you want innovation at work, why not compensate for it? While some employees may have a natural tendency to think about their tasks imaginatively, you can boost that trait in others by providing an incentive to do so.
Get creative through acquisition. If you can’t build it, buy it! Acquiring a company known for innovation is a great way to get the ball rolling, if you can afford it. Not only will you likely benefit from the talent you acquire, but you’ll also get the inside scoop about how they formed their culture of innovation—something you might be able to replicate and spread throughout your (now larger) organization.
Flatten hierarchy. The line of thinking that you need hierarchy to succeed in business is outdated. Sure, it works for some businesses, but there are plenty of others that are having wild success with no (or a very simple) hierarchy. Take Automattic, the company behind WordPress—with only a few hundred employees all of who are remote workers, WordPress powers over 25% of the websites on the Internet. Additionally, the company is behind some of the leaps in innovation that make cloud computing what it is today.
External partnerships. Too much inward thinking can be a bad thing. For example, James Joyce famously left Ireland, never to return, because he thought the nationalistic zeitgeist of his era was too inwardly focused. Then he went on to write what’s considered to be one of the most innovative novels of all time in Ulysses—according to Declan Kiberd, "Before Joyce, no writer of fiction had so foregrounded the process of thinking." Ironically, the classic book is also a love letter to his hometown of Dublin. In business, make sure to maintain adequate external relationships to help keep abreast of ideas happening outside your organization.
Embrace failure. Innovation is that shiny thing on the other side of the fast-flowing river; it’s dangerous to try and get there, and you may not (you will guaranteed now!) always succeed. Learn to love failure in that even if you don’t succeed, you learn something and are in a better position to try again.
Every organization needs to focus on innovation to survive and thrive, but it’s not going to happen on it’s own. Innovation isn’t just going to walk into your door and sweep you off your feet—you have to force the issue a little bit. But rather than use force, consider engineering a situation that allows your employees enough time, resources, and inspiration to think about their work in new and different ways and to live in the future; at least for a portion of their day.