The last year (and counting…) has shown us more than ever the importance of being able to pivot strategically when external factors force your hand. In fact, there’s been a lot of talk on how to do this logistically, operationally and financially. But one thing I’ve been surprised about is the lack of commentary on how important the right culture is for times of change.
Cultures can be focused on many different attributes, such as empowerment, sales, customer-centricity and many more. In 2020, the type that really shone in successful businesses was a culture of innovation. As Harvard Business Review noted back in 2019, a ‘culture conducive to innovation is not only good for a company’s bottom line. It also is something that both leaders and employees value in their organizations.’ And it is.
At Konica Minolta we have been focused on building an innovative culture as part of our key values since our creation over 140 years ago, because we know that being primed and ready for transformation produces a collaborative and inspirational culture. However, it is not easy. Growing and maintaining a culture is a process that requires constant thought and attention, both to the ‘healthy’ outputs and to the sometimes ‘unhealthy’ inputs that need to be handled with care.
Seeing as we have many years of experience in this, I thought it would be helpful to share what we’ve learned on our journey to building a successful innovative culture. And no, it is not as simple as generating lots of ideas!
The five tips you need to know
While I just said it’s not about generating ideas – it kind of is. But in a healthy, controlled manner that recognizes each idea has been brought to life with someone else’s time, energy and sometimes even their dreams. With not every idea deemed worth pursuing, people can quickly grow jaded, jealous or just straight up bitter. If left to breed, these negative behaviors can become toxic, and quickly discourage others from contributing their own ideas.
So the reason why this is number one in the list is because it is the most important – you cannot have a culture of innovation without a culture that accepts failure. In this way, failure should be seen as simply another challenge to overcome with a new idea, rather than a barrier halting further progress.
However, gently encouraging the exploration of risky ideas and being prepared to welcome things going wrong should not be an excuse for poor attitudes, bad work habits and a drop in key skills. Setting expectations for employees as to where the parameters lay in idea generation helps all parties understand where to push, and where to step back and learn.
It shouldn’t be a surprise, but to be innovative you should be inquisitive and constantly curious about the world you live in. And so your culture should encourage the exploration of new topics – whether tied to your business, personal development or even something in the news that has gotten a team member excited. Sharing thoughts can spark ideas without even meaning to!
It is also important that your company invests enough into resources that clearly help employees understand what innovation means for you, your employees and how they can contribute. This can be built into ongoing learning and development courses, or even be a crash course workshop to help bring new hires up to speed with your values.
One of the biggest lessons I had to learn when I first started working with innovation teams was that ‘I don’t know’ is a valid response. Not having a clear path to success, and being uncertain with how to get there is ok – and often expected when building new programs and bringing significant change to your organization.
For many people, the concreteness of black and white, or yes and no, is comfortable. But in an innovative culture, you want to encourage the experimentation into the grey and ‘maybes.’ Don’t pretend to know all the answers up front or try to find a key insight straight away. Instead, talk it out, discover possibilities and be prepared to hit a dead end.
To be creative, work flexibly, or simply for autonomous time and task management. Very closely linked to a culture of empowerment, innovation thrives when individuals feel they have the trust and support behind them to explore new ideas and thoughts. Again linked to principles of encouraging failure and ambiguity, you are fostering a culture where your associates are actively searching to contribute to not only their development, but also their teams and the overall company’s success.
However, this is another area where you can’t have only one side of the story. To allow employees complete free rein can quickly get out of hand. Senior leaders need to set the tone through their own behavior, and foster a culture that encourages candid and real-time feedback. They must be able to constructively critique others’ ideas without being abrasive, while still keeping expectations clearly defined.
If you haven’t realized by now, innovative cultures thrive on open communication systems that facilitate idea exchange, challenging discussions and of course, collaboration. It goes higher than this though, with making sure a communication strategy is in place to help every employee understand the expectations and goals regarding innovation. This can be through an awareness campaign, learning and development programs, or simply through making sure managers know how to advocate on behalf of the business.
Once the groundwork has been done, the focus on communication then turns to effective collaboration – and especially across teams. Truly innovative companies need input and integration from a diverse range of contributors to help individuals see where their ideas fit in the wider ecosystem. It also encourages a sense of collective energy, where exchanges with people who interest and excite you creates a captivating ripple effect of idea generation.
Starting your transformation today
Wouldn’t it be nice to look back on the pandemic and see success in that your company not only survived, but thrived? With many companies’ already having to make significant changes to their strategy, there is no better time to start to plant the seeds for your innovative culture at the same time. In fact, a culture that embraces flexibility might be just what you need to continue to grow.
If your interest is piqued and you’d like more tips and insights on how to improve your business, we practice what we preach. We can partner with you as you adapt to different ways of working, overcome new challenges and bring ideas to life. Because by helping customers achieve their goals, we can achieve ours – creating new value as we elevate humanity. Find out more at rethinkfutureofwork.com.