How To Build a Culture of Innovation

How To Build a Culture of Innovation

How To Create a Culture of Innovation

By Mark Wager

It's the Businesses that have a culture of innovation that survive. Success is just an idea away, a new product, a new way of cutting costs or reducing waste that can be the difference between failing and succeeding. The world is constantly changing and to succeed you need to not only innovate to keep up with the changes but you need to anticipate where the changes are heading and innovate based on what could be rather than what is. If you can do this then your business will be successful. The importance of innovation is without question but few companies actually understand what needs to happen in order to have the right culture.

The common mistake that companies make was made apparent to me when I heard an interview on the BBC recently. An English rugby coach was being interviewed and he recalled a meeting he had with Wayne Smith, a senior coach for the All Blacks. The English coach asked Wayne Smith questions about the All Blacks, their coaching methods and tactical approach and to his surprise Wayne Smith answered. The English coach was delighted to hear these secrets and he thought to himself that the England side can now beat the All Blacks because he knows what they are doing but there was a nagging feeling at the back of his mind. He asked Wayne Smith why was he sharing this information and wouldn't the All Blacks be unhappy. The All Blacks coach smiled and replied that giving information away forces him to think of new stuff and the All Blacks doesn't hire him for what he knows they hire him because of what he's going to know next. The English coach realised that what he thought was innovation was in fact just catching up and the gap between them and the All Blacks was greater than ever. To truly innovate you need to not follow in others footsteps, to truly innovate you need a culture that allows you to walk a new path and here's how.

Give everyone permission to innovate

The best leaders don't always come up with the best ideas themselves but they do know how to work with and develop the ideas of others. It's important to remember that innovation is not exclusive to the leaders in the organisation. A lot of time the best ideas come from the employees who are working face to face with your customers everyday. You need to put in place a system that allows everyone to share ideas and for others to question and evolve those ideas. It's common to see in large organisations that the senior managers idea of what challenges employees have to deal with everyday is very different to the reality and when this disconnect occurs, senior manager's ideas are based on wrong information and are destined to not only fail but actually makes employees life's more difficult.

Accept that not every idea will work

When a company innovates we look at them in amazement and wonder how did they think of such a successful idea but people rarely spend any time thinking about the times they failed. If you want a culture of innovation you need to accept that failure is an essential element of success. Not every idea will work but in every failure there are lessons that can be used for future success. Did you know that penicillin was discovered by accident? Sir Alexander Fleming, a Scottish researcher, who was known for being a messy lab technician, arrived back in the lab after a two week holiday only to find that mould had grown on a contaminated experiment. That accidental discovery led to one of the greatest breakthroughs in medicine. Lessons are all around you and the key to building a culture of innovation is to be open to those lessons even if they are disguised as failure.

Have a clean slate mentality

One of the best pieces of advice I have ever heard was from the owner of the London Finance House I worked for many years ago. We were always challenged to come up with new ideas to help the business and one thing he always used to tell us was to imagine if we were starting the business today, from scratch, what would we do differently? This forced us to look at things in a very different way. Too often I see businesses dismiss ideas at the beginning stage just because it's not what they have done in the past. The longer you are in a company the easier it is for assumptions to viewed as reality. If you truly want to embrace a culture of innovation then you need to be prepared to challenge what has gone before and ask yourself what would you do different if you could start over.

Ask "What would it take?"

I work with companies who have a culture of innovation and I work with companies who don't and in my experience one of the key differences is mindset. The companies who come up with the best ideas always ask themselves what would it take especially when they are faced with the answer that it's impossible. It's at this movement that the majority of companies give up and they think it's fine to give up because they've been told it's impossible so why waste time on something that can't be achieved yet the innovative companies understand that people only perceive something as impossible because no one else has done it yet, so why not be the first. At one stage or another every great innovation was described as impossible. Did we imagine that mankind could ever land on the moon and when we did that could we have ever imagined that the computers they used would have less processing power than the smartphones that millions of people use today. If you want an idea that others aren't thinking of then you need to be prepared to think in a way that others aren't.

"Nothing is impossible, the word itself says I'm possible" - Audrey Hepburn

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

Posted: Friday 20 January 2017

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