Any business that won’t try new things will soon start to get stale, and the staleness will rapidly spread to affect every aspect of the company. It’ll become a malaise dragging everyone down — even if they can’t say exactly what’s wrong, they’ll feel it sapping their enthusiasm. So how do you combat this slide towards inactivity? With innovation culture.
Innovation culture is a core priority of most (if not all) of the biggest brands in the world, and it’s evident in every piece of marketing and every article on workplace organization. But what does it actually involve, and how can you build it for your business? Let’s get into it:
The fundamental requirement of innovation culture is a determination to take fantastic ideas wherever they appear. It doesn’t matter whether it stems from the hard-earned abilities of a CEO or the inchoate talents of an apprentice: when you strike gold, you need to tap that vein.
Many startups have experimented with flat corporate structure, which mostly does away with complex job titles and hierarchies and allows everyone to report directly to the person in charge. While this isn’t workable past a certain point of growth, there is definitely merit to flat ideational structure — everyone in the company should be encouraged to submit ideas to the CEO if they think they’re good enough to warrant that level of attention.
Where some businesses prize experience too heavily, and others think that new blood is inherently better, innovation culture gets everyone involved and working to make things better. Done well, this leads to better company performance.
Creativity doesn’t typically stem from nowhere. It needs to be cultivated. Much of that will be beyond your control (you don’t get to tell employees what they should be doing outside of work, of course), but you can definitely help it in your working environment by encouraging employees to collaborate. This is because two heads are better than one.
When workers with different experiences and passions interact, they can inspire each other. Try finding reasons to get people working on projects together. You can even create new team projects for that specific purpose — set them out as joint ventures if you need to incentivize tasks that fall outside typical workloads (more on this option later).
Another option is to set aside time for employees to shadow one another: for example, on any given day, you might have someone from the marketing department shadow someone from the design department. Simply spending time in a new part of the business could spark some interesting ideas, and lead to some major operational improvements. (There’s also the option of attending conferences, but that will depend on your budget.)
It’s one thing considering good ideas from any source, but it’s another thing entirely to implement them, and that’s where many companies struggle. They get set in their ways, not because they’re lazy or lacking in creativity but because they’re scared to do things differently. Every change is risky, after all, particularly in these times of withering social media criticism.
What’s essential, then, is that you teach your employees to overcome the fear of failure, as well as the fear of being reprimanded for it — the latter aspect will require you to forever set aside the practice of berating staff members, but that’s something you should do anyway. It’s useful to think back on how you reached your current position, as you no doubt made mistakes along the way (mistakes that were necessary for your eventual achievement).
A touchpoint I often return to for this idea is a brace of comments made in interviews by Tobias Lütke, founder of Shopify (a big ecomm company that provides a utility for building stores). To Farnam Street, he noted this: “No one’s ever gonna commit more egregious bugs to the Shopify codebase than I did. No one’s gonna accidentally cause more downtime than I did. I’ve committed every managerial sin in the book.”
Now, let’s see how that fits in with a comment he made to Canadian Business: “When we start new interns in our R&D team, we make sure that within their first week they actually make a change to Shopify that impacts our customers.” The connection is clear. Because he understands that mistakes are part of the process, he pushes new hires to make real changes as soon as possible — and if they make mistakes, so much the better.
I touched upon the concept of joint ventures because incentives are important, but they matter for much more than collaboration. When one of your employees contributes a creative idea, they get value back to some extent in the form of improving their career prospects — they know what being useful will help their case for getting promoted and making more money.
However, if you really want to maximize innovation, you need to go beyond that, because talented employees with amazing ideas might well think it better to keep those ideas for themselves. After all, if they hand them over and you use them to make money, they might not benefit significantly from it — particularly if they already feel secure in their positions.
What’s the key? Sharing the success (in a way that goes beyond motivational talks and similar tactics). If someone submits an idea and you turn it into a money-making reality, offer them a cut. It doesn’t need to be huge, but you give them a 10% stake, it’ll keep them feeling invested and motivated to prove similarly useful in the future.
Innovation culture is the key to your business achieving its potential. Encourage creativity throughout your organization and use all resulting ideas to your advantage. It’ll take some time to get everyone used to taking calculated risks without any fear, but it’ll pay off in a big way down the line.