Fostering a culture of innovation

By Ryan Williams | 6 min read | How to lean in to fostering a culture of innovation in your business. 

Does your business foster a culture of innovation and ideas-sharing? It could mean the difference between your business stagnating or achieving real growth, writes Ryan Williams, Playford Professor of Business Growth at the Australian Centre for Business Growth.

So many people I’ve worked with over the years don’t see themselves as innovators. Many doubt their ideas, their abilities, or worse still, harbour a fear they may get laughed down and dismissed.

This is especially true outside of the executive team, where talented people can have a first-hand level of customer or process insight that leadership just can’t access.

When I hear people state that they are not innovators, it tells me a few things about their work environment. Firstly, there probably isn’t adequate permission in the environment for innovation. Or the individual isn’t given permission to be innovative. And secondly, there isn’t a safety net around the company’s culture of innovation.

Embracing and building a culture of innovation in your business

It is critical to create a safe space for people to work in. Where ideas and growth are welcomed and embraced.

So how do you lead and lean into a culture of innovation? How do you set up the landscape to find ideas that propel your business forward at an accelerating velocity?

Here are a few thoughts that I have found helpful in fostering a culture of innovation:

1. Innovation is not a ‘system’

Too often, companies try to systematise innovation. They have an innovation committee, or an overly complex bit of software, or a portal where staff ideas must be uploaded. It’s all ‘stick and carrot’ and likely to be proscriptive. Whereas innovation is almost diametrically opposed – it is a sign of a healthy culture.

Using software to solve for ideas is almost never effective and can create future business problems. A drawback of this approach to innovation is the business can end up with reams of suggestions. This creates an evaluation burden that is typically not resourced effectively and quickly leads to a discouraged workforce.

Rejection of ideas can occur when the wrong questions are being asked upfront. Or because no context or framework is provided for people to solve meaningful problems. For example, financial constraints or recognition of the competitive landscape. The result is a thousand ideas that are in no way anchored to the core challenges facing the company.

In turn, a business may find itself disengaging from innovation. The C-Suite starts to believe that it’s a waste of time. Staff start thinking along the lines of, “I gave you 100 ideas and none of them have been used. Nobody cares about my ideas.” And so begins an entirely predictable and inevitable decline in creativity.

Encourage innovation

To encourage innovation, you need to be very clear about: the problem you’re trying to solve (put the effort into asking the right question) and where the boundaries are that limit the ideation process (answer the question with consideration of a particular context). Then, tell your team about the problem and the boundaries, so they are actively thinking about it – failure to launch is often a problem with not hitting the ‘start’ button.

Lastly, it is imperative to underpin the approach by a providing a safe culture on the front end, by giving people permission, space and safety to think about and share their ideas.

2. Innovation is often ‘in the small’

Another issue is we tend to believe that innovation must be big: solving climate change, curing a major disease, inventing the next tech disruptor. And if we’re not doing this, it’s not worth our attention.

However, what I’ve noticed about businesses that are regarded as very innovative and productive is that innovation lives in the small things. This is one of the principal reasons why small and medium businesses are often nimbler when compared to larger organisations.

Listen to staff and act

When I led the South African cinema chain, Ster-Kinekor Theatres, I’d have breakfast every six weeks with a cross-section of staff who I wouldn’t ordinarily see in my day-to-day work. I made sure that the group included frontline staff, technicians, head office personnel and employees from the back office representing a wide range of functions across the business.

At one of these breakfasts, a frontline worker who managed the concession stand mentioned that our uniforms were not ideal for hot, South African summers. This was exacerbated by the heat in the kitchen and prep space behind the serving areas. As a result, the company introduced airy golf shirts in the next purchasing cycle. These were much more comfortable for our staff, realised a significant cost saving, and ended up boosting staff morale as people recognised they had been heard!

The company unlocked a host of small tweaks and suggestions that came out of this breakfast forum. It demonstrates that substantial value can be found looking for small wins that are easy to implement. It is also important to let your people know that all ideas count, not just ‘big’ ones.

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3. Your newest employee can be your best innovation asset

Naivety of the business environment is an often-undervalued trait. And your newest employee has this in spades.

A new employee has the permission to walk into a situation and ask all the questions that everybody’s always wanted to ask, without judgement. They bring maximum insight and perspective. Because they have no frame of reference for ‘how things have always been done’ in a business.

Ask why?

I had a new finance clerk working in our business who asked a simple question: “Why do we split these invoices across ten different cost centres?” The company initially wanted to allocate costs against a particular project; however, the outcome was a huge drain in hours manually allocating every invoice. One option would be to invest money in remapping the finance system (costly!). Instead, the clerk suggested applying a formula as part of month-end. Instantly saved almost a half a month’s worth of time, leaving them free to concentrate on other priorities.

The mere act of naively asking “why?” drove innovation. It’s how fresh things happen in businesses and part of incremental tweaks to practice. But you must have a culture supportive of innovation for this to happen in your business!

4. People need to feel heard

In the context of innovation, as in so many other areas of business, people need to be heard and feel heard. When driving a more innovative culture, it is therefore critical to design the feedback process upfront.

There will always be an abundance of ideas in a company that innovates. So, it is important that leaders make the time to acknowledge someone applying their mind to a problem (because this takes effort and courage). Explain why certain proposals are not pursued. Perhaps due to lack of resource, a timing issue, a contextual difficulty or for any of the other myriad reasons that something doesn’t move forward.

Model a safe culture

You can model a safe culture as well as help people in your company understand how and why the company makes decisions. In turn, this improves the accuracy of innovation in the future.

Of course, these are all pointers to get creativity flowing in an organisation. Once you have a company that creates good ideas, the challenge shifts to implementation, which is also part of the feedback loop and is what truly makes a difference to your business.

Otherwise, innovation in business will remain ideas trapped on a page or a Powerpoint slide!

Original article published in Kochie’s Business Builders

Want to learn more about this topic? Try ‘How leaders foster innovation