15 Practices of Innovation Leaders for Creating Cultures of Innovation

For my book, Innovation Step-By-Step: How to Create and Develop Ideas For Your Challenge, I drew on my first hand experience and knowledge working as an innovation consultant and facilitator for a wide variety of organizations to share the common elements of the innovation process for anyone to use and apply. But this time, I wanted to draw on innovation leaders’ experiences to identify trends in their approaches to accelerating innovation within their organizations and creating a culture of innovation. This time the focus was on learning how to innovate and the practice of it.

The following is the distillation of my interviews with 100 innovation leaders at a wide variety of typically larger organizations. By the end of this article, you will have a checklist or toolbox of approaches you can try, test and evaluate within your own organization to help you and your organization reach a higher level of innovation…both the learning and doing of it for yourself and others.

1. Read to Gain New Methods for Innovation

The innovation leaders I interviewed were a group of readers. Because there isn’t much formal training around innovation (or degrees in it), this group read to gain new methods they could use in innovation, for creating, for applying new ideas, new technologies or launching a product. I’ve listed the top 10 books influential to their practice of innovation in organizations in this previous post with an innovation book list.

2. TRY and Experiment with the New Innovation Methods

These innovation leaders not only read to gain new methods, they put them to practice – applying them in their work, with their teams. Their teams oftentimes served as the canvas for testing new methods. The rest of this article will show you specific methods they tried and adopted.

3. Design Thinking

In particular, design thinking is one approach the innovation leaders learned through reading. Design thinking is a process where empathy for the end user is applied in initial ideation of a product or service solution. A lot of the people I interviewed were influenced by the Stanford Design School and the process of Empathy – Define – Ideate – Prototype -Test. They also iterated the simple Human Centered Design approach for design thinking they learned from IDEO: Hear, Create, Deliver. Both IDEO in Palo Alto and IIT in Chicago teach design thinking and the book 101 Design Methods is another excellent resource. The Stanford D School is very influential as well and offers design thinking toolkits for use. Excellent books have also been authored by IDEO founders and leaders.

4. Lean Startup Methodologies

Many innovation leaders also mentioned Lean Startup Methodologies. While the people I interviewed worked in typically large organizations – businesses, government organizations, universities or non-profits, we are living in a world where many are seeking to be more entrepreneurial within their organizations. They wanted to adopt startup approaches, like interviewing customers before building a product or measuring other data to inform their decisions as they developed. They wanted to move fast, agile. Agile happens to be another popular method among people in the tech industry that is spreading to other industries. You can see more about getting started with Agile or Scrum.

5. Business Model/Lean Canvas

One example of companies adopting specific tools, techniques, and methods for simpler and faster innovation (like Lean Startup approaches) can be found in the Business Model Canvas, which, in sharp contrast to the extensive business plan documents traditionally used by businesses, is a way to describe a new business, product or service all in one page. The popular Business Model Canvas is elaborated on in Osterwalder and Pigneur’s book Business Model Generation: A Handbook for Visionaries, Game Changers, and Challengers. Alternatively, the Lean Canvas is based on the Business Model Canvas but geared for those Lean Startup practitioners. You can read about that in Ash Maurya’s book Running Lean: Iterate from Plan A to a Plan that Works. Both Canvases are excellent tools used by many of the innovation leaders I interviewed for business model innovation and describing a business’s value proposition.

6. Diffusion of Innovations Technology Adoption

The innovation leaders also frequently mentioned Crossing The Chasm by Geoffrey Moore, a book centered around the classic Diffusion of Innovations theory from Everett Rogers. This is the technology adoption life-cycle, which includes the innovators and the early adopters, whose goal is to help their customers and people in their organization become the early adopters or early majority as well. Today, being an early adopter likely means employing a new technology. The majority of the innovation leaders I interviewed wanted to know how to apply and utilize new technologies for the benefit of their business. And for many innovation leaders, the real challenge was in communicating the value of applying or even adopting a new technology within their organization. You can search twitter hashtags to learn about disruptive technologies and tech trends to keep your eye on. The list of emerging technologies goes on and on, but some of these include:
#IoT #AI #blockchain #Fintech #Cybersecurity #BIM #M2M #IIoT #AR #VR

7. Observation and Connection

The innovation leaders were always thinking about and looking to make something better through observation and connection. They were problem seekers. Innovation leaders look for problems and challenges precisely because they see them as opportunities. They specifically reported that Big Data is an excellent means through which to identify these problems, and therefore opportunities.

8. Fit With The Business

Innovation leaders also sought out deeper knowledge about their business in order to implement innovations of best fit for their company. Many of those that I interviewed had an undergraduate degree in engineering but later got an MBA in order to learn more in depth about their business, industry or company. When they began understanding how their business worked on a deeper level, beyond knowing the engineering side of things, they advanced to a higher level of innovation and improved the ability to make a better business cases to advance their ideas within the organization.

Identifying a fitting innovation for an organization is similar to identifying an appropriate career. You need an idea fitting of the business’ interests, values, mission and purpose. Knowing everything from what the business excels at to it’s core capabilities and the people it serves is crucial. It also has to be something people are willing to pay for. Seeking out opportunities to learn about your business and its industry can help you to identify best fits down the line. This way, you’re more capable of identifying an innovation of interest to your entire company, not just one that interests you.

9. Acquisition Over Invention

A lot of the larger organizations were not interested in invention, but innovation. Meaning, they would rather acquire an idea than invent one themselves. It’s easier to find someone who has already gone through all of the trouble to create, validate and acquire customers for a service or product and acquire that idea.

10. Startup Accelerators

The ways and kinds of connections innovator leaders make with other innovators and organizations is also key to increasing innovation within an organization. Because of their size, many larger organizations have a hard time moving to launch a new product, service or changing the way they do things quickly. Speed and agility is a strength of many startups. At larger organizations then, these innovation leaders can learn from and work with startups through a variety of approaches.

Organizations sometimes identify startup accelerators or incubator programs within their community and offer sponsorship or volunteer company employees as mentors or collaborators to the programs. The startup people and entrepreneurs experiment with new and early methods, they are the early adopters. By staying engaged with these startups, innovator leaders at the larger organizations can learn some of these current methods. Sometimes, sponsorship will target a very specific field. For instance, if there’s a financial tech startup, one financial services company might sponsor this startup, even if it lies outside of their community or city. These relationships can turn into additional opportunity for the larger organizations as well. Remember, organizations are not typically as interested in inventing as they are in innovating. However, maintaining relationships with startups is one of the easiest ways to identify and acquire relevant startups and technologies. Sometimes, organizations will create their own accelerators within their organization for a similar effect.

11. Idea Competitions

As a large organization, the variety of perspectives from your pool of employees is an incredible resource to tap into for ideas for new products, services, ideas or better organizational ways of doing things. To crowdsource from a community or within an organization, innovation leaders will host Idea Competitions where they ask individuals or teams to submit their ideas to the company within a specific time frame and format. Submissions ranged from content sheets or short videos, to building out a business model canvas or a lean canvas for a new product, model or service. The real challenge is implementing the new ideas after they’ve been reviewed, which takes real leadership, initiative, and courage from an individual or team within an organization.

12. Idea Management Software

To track idea submissions, or innovation opportunities more generally, the companies would use Idea Management Software. One especially interesting way a company applied the software was in returning ideas that failed to advance to their original creator, including an explanation as to why and at what gate or stage it stopped at. The creator could then use that information to refine their idea and try advancing it again. The company could also share similar past ideas and report where it stopped for future reference. So many times, people create and submit ideas that seem to enter a black hole, never to hear about them again, but this software provides a way for everyone to see these ideas and what it takes to advance something similar.

13. Hackathons

There are no shortage of innovation events. A lot of organizations started hosting Hackathon style events, especially on Fridays so teams can really dive into a project. Some people have even reported returning first thing Monday morning to present on what they created over the weekend. By providing a space for people to collaborate on something they’re genuinely passionate about, these types of events also help contribute to a positive organizational culture.

14. Shark Tank Style Events

Many organizations used a Shark Tank style approach where key people within the organization come together as a panel, like the Sharks, and people from within the organization, oftentimes in teams, create a new idea, product or service and do a Shark Tank style pitch. It’s almost like a startup accelerator within the company. A lot of times, innovation just stops because somebody doesn’t understand what you created, its value or application. The executives said they liked this approach because it’s easier to understand ideas in this format – where they can see it, hear it and talk about it with the original creators.

15. Bureaucracy Breaking Skills

Bureaucracy seems to be prevalent in particular industries and especially in larger organizations. Innovation leaders need to leverage their skills to make a change, oftentimes breaking down barriers related to the nature of bureaucracy in the process. A lot of large organizations are not designed for innovation. They are designed to take a process and do it again and again and again with precision, design and excellence, they are not designed to identify new opportunities or leverage creativity. Many leaders mentioned that their companies had a great culture of execution, but needed to improve at their culture of innovation. They didn’t want to lose their culture of execution, but wanted to help the company overall think more about the future and how they can create the next new thing of value for their customers. That takes some bureaucracy breaking skills – which involves knowing how to navigate the organization, being a champion, or finding a champion and nurturing and mentoring them. Involving a team or another organization that has done this well in the past can be one pathway. The innovation leaders I interviewed learned how to do this by practicing, failing and learning how to navigate their own organizations better.

Innovation Leaders Do The Work to Learn

My interviews with over 100 innovator leaders revealed that these people not only do innovation work themselves, but also help others implement it within an organization. That is not always an easy task, but the overarching theme I heard over and over was the notion that you learn by doing. These innovator leaders didn’t necessarily have formal classroom experiences to learn how to innovate, they learned by doing the real thing, and by introducing others to innovation, were able to build cultures of innovation within their organizations.

Creating a Culture of Innovation: Always Be Fishing

Here are a pair of pictures of me doing something I love, fly fishing. Another important insight I took away from my interviews is that one of the main purposes of an innovation leader is helping others to understand innovation. A lot of people think you’re going to catch a fish on your first cast. In fly fishing, you cast and cast and cast, and you might not catch anything all afternoon. You try all kinds of things: different flys, different lures, but you still might not catch anything. You figure out what’s going on in nature and you try to fit with that. What might the trout want to eat right now? Where might they be? You learn as you fish and you get better, but you’re still not going to catch a fish every time. It’s just like that with innovation – but, understanding that’s the nature of it, makes you more apt to do it. Understanding that startups fail and learning what you can do to increase your success rate helps. You can help others working on innovation by letting them know that just because they submitted an idea, doesn’t mean it’s going to be launched or implemented every time.

You have to always be fishing, casting, creating new ideas, innovating, responding to change, and finding new ways of doing things. Always be fishing. These were the themes that I heard from innovation leaders that they found promising. Try implementing some of these tips into your practices as an innovation leader to both help develop yourself and your organization to be more innovative.

View our article on 7 trends for organizational innovation and learning for more insights and themes from this research with innovation leaders. We will be elaborating on current findings like the mindset for innovation, innovation centers, starting small and scaling within the organization, innovation events, training design thinking facilitators, and more.

Questions about innovation in your organization or have something to add? Email Darin, the article author at Darin at innovationtraining.org.

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