Building Your Innovation Culture

Change the gameIn my recent article Innovation: Ninety percent of the Game Is Half Mental, I spoke about some personal skills and attributes we want to have in our individual employees.  I included such items as Provocative Inquiry, Creative Problem Solving, Agility, Resilience and Intellectual Curiosity.

We can cultivate these both by training our team members, and by seeking to hire more people who are naturally “wired” this way.   (If you are interested, email me and I can send a list of potential interview questions to help you assess these traits in candidates).

However, building an innovation culture also requires creating an environment that is supportive of change and prudent risk taking.   It has to do with what we as leaders must create.

In her book “Kill the Company”, Lisa Bodell suggests a list of organizational behaviors that promote a healthy spirit of innovation and change.  For my money, this is a pretty good set of behaviors to focus on.


Organizations that keep an eye trained firmly on the future will have a distinct advantage over those that are only concerned with the daily shuffle. This means not only paying attention to the big trends that everyone else is watching but also the smaller shifts others might overlook. It’s organizations that have the desire to be proactive and stay ahead of the curve that will find new solutions and be able to drive growth from products and services that we haven’t even begun to imagine.


The organizations that will be the leaders of tomorrow will have cultures in which challenging the accepted way of doing things is not only permitted, but encouraged. This approach goes beyond internal procedures and expectations. It also means challenging accepted assumptions within your industry, geography, and expertise. Leaders of tomorrow don’t follow best practices, they create them.


Risk is essential to innovation, but there are ways to be smart about risk and there are ways to be stupid about it. Smart risk takers are well-informed and aware of all the upsides and downsides. It takes practice and a strategy, but taking risks is something every employee and company must do. From my vantage point, innovation is about enabling your people to see things through fresh eyes (or from different perspectives) in the hope that they will consider new and interesting solutions that they would under normal circumstances.   It can be a bottom-up organic thing.  It is not forced from above, or commanded.   Innovation leaders needs to see themselves more as holding a watering can where they engage in cultivating seeds of ideas in their people.  As with plants, how they grow up is unpredictable, and related to their care and feeding.   We need to create the ground and MAKE IT POSSIBLE for the ideas to germinate and flourish.   It is the ultimate in unleashing human power and imagination.


Organizations that make the most of their employees’ wide range of expertise and perspectives will certainly lead in the future. Fostering a culture of openness and sharing will help build trust, which is essential for innovation. Employees who collaborate can achieve far more than those who operate in the mindset of every man for himself.


Learning is not just an activity, it’s an attitude. An organization full of knowledge seekers is bound to be one that is able to base decisions on the best information. Experimentation should be encouraged, and leaders need to make it clear that they are comfortable with some level of failure. Failure is an opportunity for reflection and a chance to improve.

Yes, I know . . . yet another list of things that make sense but are hard to do in practice.    Well that’s the point, isn’t it?  If this list makes sense, you need to practice them.  Your grandmother could tell you that practice makes . . .. perfect!

The best way to practice these is for you as a manager, supervisor or executive to actively live them in your daily life.  If you want your organization to about continuous learning, YOU need to read, attend conferences and to try new things.  You can actively share your new learning points with colleagues, share articles, bring in guest speakers, and talk about what’s new in the world.  If you want them to be collaborators, YOU need to have strong collaborative relationships with your fellow department heads.   Your people need to see you working together, talking, having lunch and meeting to explore issue of common interest.   If you want them to take prudent risks, you need to be seen as the consummate risk taker.    And if things go wrong, you need to take stock of what happened, and talk with your team about how to do it better next time.  If you want them to challenge the status quo, you need to be ready to break some of your own rules.  Think of yourself as the CAP on the performance your team will provide.  By your actions, you can choose how high (or low) you wish to set the bar.

Is innovation and change the best area on which you should focus?   I think a strong case can be made in the affirmative.

I have spoken to colleagues of mine at Toyota who argue to me that they believe that TPS (Toyota’s internal innovation process) is the one universal methodology that can drive success throughout their organization from production operations through the back office.  They spend a lot of time both teaching it and practicing it throughout their operations.

So what are you waiting for? Start culture building.  Get out in front.  Practice makes perfect.


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Filed under Innovation, Leading

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