Building a Culture of Innovation

Monday, November 11, 2013 - 21:14

By Leon Gettler

Everyone wants to work in a creative environment, one that fosters innovation and encourages people to stretch themselves. But how do managers create that sort of workplace?

Michael Alter at says managers have to first of all give employees leeway and responsibility.

“When your employees aren’t given any autonomy to make decisions on tough calls, the result can be staffers who are satisfied with the status quo. You’ll end up with a culture that’s a hindrance to innovation, rather than an enabler of it,’’ he says.

Barbara Armstrong at Forbes says there is no magic bullet. Much of it, she says, comes down to culture. Companies might try all sorts of initiatives, from open office plans to building an innovation lab, but they are wasting time and resources if they don’t have the right culture. It has to be embraced by top management as a priority.

Edward Goldman at Wired says companies avoid innovation when they only take risks that will ensure success. They have to be prepared to tolerate failure, that’s the nature of innovation.

“Support of failure does not mean that you need to build out a new reward system that provides monetary compensation for each failure, “Congratulations Bob that is your third failure this week, here is your bonus!” It means that you recognisze it, don’t spend time looking for who is at fault and penalisze everyone, but focus on what was learned from the failure and how to overcome it. How can you avoid it in the future and strive for better results?

This is one reason that small companies or newer companies can innovate faster in many cases. They do not have the time to search for all the guilty parties and punish them in their reviews, they have to continuously evolve and deliver quickly, which forces them to adapt and learn from these mistakes. They are also very focused on the goal and not always married to the path to deliver. This frees them from the constraints and allows for more dynamic approaches.”

Gwen Moran at says extrinsic motivations like paying people cash or giving them some kind of reward doesn’t create as much incentive for innovation as allowing people to develop their ideas within the business framework. So what do managers have to do to get employees to think in innovative ways?

“First, work on trend-spotting,’’ Moran says. “Have them think through how the world is changing and where your business fits in those changes and over what period of time. Societal shifts in demographics, attitudes, and priorities are huge and can dramatically increase or decrease the demand for business. Your customers might be demanding faster service, more sustainable practices, or something else can really change how you deliver your products and services. What could you be doing now to develop solutions to those future changes? Stay aggressive and forward-looking as opposed to defensive and reactive.

“Encourage them to put themselves in the customer’s shoes and experience what the customer is experiencing making this purchase or engaging with your company. What are their concerns? How could it be made better? Those are opportunities for innovation.”