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How to create an ‘innovation culture’

Where does an ‘innovative culture’ come from and how can you make your staff think ‘outside the box’, or even imagine a world without boxes?

It’s hard to put your finger on innovation – by definition, it hasn’t been thought of yet. The first iPhone keyboard. The gig economy. Software as a Service.  But you instinctively know it when you see it, and more and more companies are treating innovation not as a lofty plateau, but rather a commodity they can grow deliberately. Consumer demand is pushing companies to be faster, cheaper and more sustainable. With so much competition, everyone is looking for a creative edge. 

But how does a company do that exactly? How do you make your staff think ‘outside the box’, or even imagine a world without boxes? Where does an ‘innovative culture’ come from? 

Invest in lifelong learning 

One of the best ways to encourage innovation inside a company is to empower staff through lifelong learning. This is a new business ethos that’s gaining public traction, particularly when it comes to fields undergoing skills shortages, like cyber security and data analytics.  To thrive in Industry 4.0, it's critical businesses and individuals upskill to meet new workplace demands, rather than relying on external contractors. “The education we received at 22 will not stand us in sufficiently good stead to support us through our careers,” says RMIT Online CEO, Helen Souness. “Every individual should be asking themselves whether their current role is allowing them to develop new and relevant skill sets.”  By training staff in emerging future skills like Business AnalyticsData ScienceMachine LearningCustomer Experienceand App Development – companies are investing in their own innovation.   

Diversify, diversify, diversify  

Studies have shown that diversity trumps homogeneity every time, particularly when it comes to business innovation. This is a trap for managers and HR teams to be aware of: if you recruit the same candidates over and over again, you’ll get the same sort of thinking over and over again. Innovation comes from the collision and intersection of opposites. Fresh ideas. Divergent thinking. Different cultural backgrounds. And particularly a diverse set of skills and work experience. This is where lifelong learning comes back in: by expanding your employees’ areas of competency, you’re increasing the chances that they’ll be able to spot flaws in your current methodology (or even the methodology of the entire industry).   

Reward failure 

It might take a hundred average ideas to come up with something that will truly shake the world. ‘Failure and innovation are inseparable twins’ is one of Amazon and Jeff Bezos’ key guiding principles. “At Amazon, we have to grow the size of our failures as the size of our company grows,” Bezos said in 2016. “We have to make bigger and bigger failures, otherwise none of our failures will be needle movers.” This isn’t so much the old chestnut that ‘Failure is just learning in disguise’ (although that’s certainly part of the Amazon creed). It’s more to do with building a company culture that accepts failure as a necessary part of business. No judgement. No blame. Anyone in your organisation could have the next Big Idea, but if they’re scared of being shot down, if the ‘failure culture’ isn’t right, that Big Idea might never see the light of day.  

Commit resources 

This is a big one. If innovation was easy, everyone would be doing it. Creating job titles like Chief Innovation Officer without the proper resource and time investment is counterproductive. Look at companies like Vodafone, who instituted a comprehensive Enterprise Innovation Program and dedicated customer innovation workshops. Consider setting time aside once or twice a year for company-wide hack-a-thons. Build teams to follow up on key projects and innovation ideas. Factor innovation costs into your annual budget, either through team training or third-party consultancy. Instead of siloing IT, Marketing and Sales, create multidisciplinary teams working with Agile methodology to tackle large problems and challenge established thinking. The important thing is to treat innovation the same way you would ‘efficiency’ or ‘productivity’: not as some luxury fad, but as an essential component of success. 

Start with your customer problem 

Customer problems are often seen as headaches, but they’re a actually a goldmine of innovation. This is partly how the SaaS culture changed the internet. Every customer problem is an example of a product gap in your particular industry. It’s a question: ‘How could we do this thing better or do it differently?’ And those questions are the ones that tend to generate innovative solutions. Again, diverse and well-qualified teams, backed by an excellent Customer Management Program, are the best way to tackle these problems. Companies have gone about this in a couple of different ways: either through ‘flat company structures’ to encourage open communication and employee confidence, or a dedicated ‘Innovation Champion’ who can bring new team ideas to the attention of senior management.  


Interested in upskilling opportunities? Check out RMIT Online's offerings.


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This article was originally published on 10 September 2019