Seven principles to ignite a culture of innovators

Posted November 29, 2016

Every big company was a lean and mean startup at one time. Now, confronted with digital disruption all around us, we’re all rushing to rekindle the entrepreneurial flame that first put our businesses on the map.

Every company wants to be “innovative,” but “innovation” has become an overused buzzword that has lost its meaning. Executives at companies of all sizes toss the word around as if they’re doing it. They point to experiments that range from departmental contests and monetary awards to innovation fairs, idea boxes and time to dream big. Executives at one company even dressed up as innovation superheroes in an “intervention” to rally employees around innovation.

The intentions are good, but many of these initiatives are what I call innovation tourism. They tell employees to spend a little time visiting innovation, but they lack the sustained commitment needed to disrupt and transform their entire culture.

Instead, companies should focus more on the innovator — not the innovation.

More innovators — ones fully equipped with entrepreneurial skills, resources and support — will lead to more innovations. Focusing on the journey rather than the result is not just a leap of faith, but a proven methodology for success.

Corporate innovators need a grassroots disruption from “co-conspirators”

You can’t mandate innovation from the top. Vision statements aren’t enough. Ad hoc initiatives fizzle fast. To infuse an immediate and lasting entrepreneurial spirit into each employee, you first need to disrupt the culture. Innovators need an environment of support.

Innovators can come from anywhere

Engineering and R&D used to be the sole domains of innovation in tech companies. Now, however, we recognize that innovators can come from anywhere company-wide — across all roles, grades and geographies. Discover and develop them all, whether they’re millennials in marketing, mid-career in HR or long-timers in finance.

Innovations rarely — if ever — trickle down from the top ranks. Innovators typically pop up like wild flowers from the grassroots. For example, the idea for those ubiquitous Post-it notes? They came from a pair of 3M scientists who noodled on how to use a light adhesive that executives had disregarded on another project.

Innovators tap into their own passions and motivations

Ordinary people become great innovators when motivated by powerful emotions. They begin their journey by tapping into their own passions. Then, they leverage that inspiration to identify and align it with a problem to solve.

Innovators ignite more value collaborating on cross-functional teams

Nothing profound will come from engineers working with other engineers unless they involve other functions to round out the solution. To create true breakthroughs, you need to wipe out business silos and form cross-functional teams with multi-dimensional insights from marketing, strategy, finance, HR and beyond. Innovation is a team sport requiring different talents at different stages, but all working toward a shared goal. Each contributes value because of different skills, perspectives and approaches.

Innovators need direction, strategy and resources to guide the way

The biggest mistake companies make to jumpstart innovation is their failure to provide clear guidance. Nearly everyone I know has a brilliant idea for the next big app, but few know how to bring it to life.

Mentors and coaches are more important than managers

Show the innovation way with mentors and coaches — not traditional managers. Mentors and coaches, both inside and outside the company, must replace managers to guide cross-functional teams. Traditional managers are often roadblocks to innovation. They slow progress by focusing on hierarchy, top-down decision making, rigid deadlines and short-term outcomes.

Empower employees to experiment, take risks and fail

To create game-changers, employee innovators must feel empowered to brainstorm, experiment and make decisions — without judgement. Companies must give up control and level the playing field so teams value everyone’s idea. To thrive, team members must hold each other accountable while driving to their goal. Netflix and TED are two companies that exemplify the democratization of decisions.

Source: TC