Three Strategic Steps for Building a Culture of Innovation

by Diane Berenbaum
"If you want to make innovation a key competitive advantage of your organization or department, then it's critical that you build a 'culture of innovation.'"
Avish Parashar

In other words, innovation needs to be ingrained in everything you do. But building a culture of innovation is a process. It can take a long time, and it may not be easy, though it is worth the effort. The key to success is setting the right foundation—for without it, you are setting up yourself and your organization for failure. Avish, an expert in innovation, change and motivation, recommends the following three steps to start the process:

1. Get Buy-In

Nothing struggles as much as an initiative forced on people that don't believe in or even care about its goals or objectives. Yet, leaders often think they are doing the right thing by creating a vision and mission statement for the organization. Sure, they get very excited and proud of it as they share it with passion and expect associates to respond in kind. But, if associates feel that it has been thrust upon them, since their input was not elicited, then they may not care about it. They may even end up disheartened or enervated, rather than energized.

To gain buy-in from all associates at all levels, implement the following strategies:

  • Create Involvement:  People respond to questions, not demands. Create forums and opportunities for everyone to provide their comments and suggestions. Most importantly, be open-minded and willing to consider their input (i.e. don't have a rigid agenda and only look at feedback that supports it). If nothing is done with that input, then that will only serve to squelch the enthusiasm and desire to contribute to this initiative.
  • Appeal to Organizational Self-Interest:  A "buy-in killer" is when people do not understand why they are being forced to change. Make it clear how these initiatives will benefit the organization, whether it is helping them become more competitive, strategic or financially secure. Share the upside, and make sure everyone sees it too.
  • Appeal to Personal Self-Interest:  If you only talk about how great things will be for the organization, then your middle and frontline associates won't care very much. Clarify how the changes will help them directly (beyond, "well, anything that helps the company helps the people in it.") Is this change going to lead to more money, less time, greater opportunity for growth or career advancement, etc.?

2. Set Proper Expectations

This step forces you to think through why you are promoting innovation and how you plan to achieve results. What exactly are you expecting when it comes to being more innovative? If you don't set proper expectations, you will likely lose focus, and your associates' interest. Plus, you will have no idea if your actions are working. Instead, set the following expectations to set the stage for success:

  • Time: Building a culture of innovation takes time. If you don't set proper time expectations, frustration can set in and you may run out of resources before you achieve anything significant. Be realistic and conservative.
  • Resources: Innovation doesn't have to be expensive, but this type of culture change will require resources. Also, the fastest path to innovation is to be agile, which requires small-scale implementation. Set clear expectations of how much money, manpower, equipment, etc., you will need, so you can plan accordingly. Don't delay because resources are tight—some of the best innovations have been discovered in the face of limited resources.
  • Success: Decide how you will define success. What will it look like to senior management? What will it look like to front line workers? If you don't know, you'll lack direction and have no idea whether you efforts are working and/or worth continuing. You will also make it harder to get future buy-in if you can't demonstrate success or explain what needs to be done differently to achieve success.

How to Set Those Expectations:

  • Shrink the Goal: Behavioral shifts happen one step at a time. Rather than overwhelming your associates by trying to go too far too fast, set a goal that represents one small but strong step forward. Then, build off of that success as people get more comfortable with being innovative.  
  • Set a Defined Time Frame: For particularly resistant groups, set a defined time frame. Rather than saying, "Here's the way we are going to do things from now on," say, "Here is how we are going to do things for the next 90 days. If you give me your full support for one quarter and things don't work, we can go back to the ways things were."
  • Create Metrics: This is the hardest one, because innovation is not a straight line process. Setting a metric of "we must have three new innovative ideas by the end of Q2," isn't the best way to go. In fact, that approach can be detrimental. For innovation, in addition to the hard data (new implemented ideas, sales increases, cost decreases, etc.), be sure to measure activity, and reward behavior:
  • Measure activity – To create cultural change, you want people to take action, to do something different. Measure the activity so you can see whether people are starting to change, even if their efforts yield no real "results."
  • Reward Behavior – If you plan to create a new culture, you need to reinforce and reward the behavior you want in that new culture. Soft skills, such as listening, collaborating, coaching and empathizing may be hard to measure. Create systems to track these skills as well as key financials. You will get a good idea if your innovation efforts are moving in the right direction.

3. Adopt the Right Mindset

It's not enough to encourage people to "think out of the box" or "be creative" or "customer-focused." Culture shift starts with mindset shift, and the following key mindsets inspire innovation:

  • Present Mindedness:  Some of the best innovations come when people simply notice a problem that can be solved or a process that can be improved. The challenge is your people are probably too overwhelmed to stop and notice anything. By giving them the skills to be present—and get them to pay attention—you open up the opportunity for them to see innovation possibilities. Beyond training them on this, you must support them by creating time to pause, notice, and reflect.
  • "What If?":  A simple question, but the more you can get people to start asking "what if," the more opportunities you create for innovation. Get your team to stop whining about what is and to start using what if to imagine what could be.
  • "Yes, And":  This is a powerful idea from the world of improv comedy. "Yes, and," is a mindset where people accept whatever situation is presented to them, (the "yes" part) and then take it one step further by exploring it deeper or adding to it. The opposite of "yes, and" is "yes, but," which is the negative mentality that puts evaluation too soon and blocks innovation. Evaluation is fine, but it needs to come later.
  • To create a culture of innovation, start with "Yes, And" and "What If?" Once you establish the rule, it'll be easier for people to notice when they are being closed-minded.
As the world gets smaller and faster, your ability to compete in the market will be directly related to how innovative you and your associates can be. Say "yes, and"…you'll discover the difference between success and failure.

Adapted from an article by Avish Parashar.

Avish uses techniques from the world of improv comedy to engage and educate audiences on ideas around change, creativity, and motivation. He is author of the book "Say, ‘Yes, And!'"
Diane Berenbaum is a long-time contributor and former editor of the MAGIC Service Newsletter. She has more than twenty-five years of experience as a consultant, coach, and facilitator. Diane is the co-author of How to Talk to Customers: Create a Great Impression Every Time with MAGIC® .

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