Savvy leaders know that fostering innovation among their employees is critical to their company’s future success. But, making innovation part of the cultural fabric can be challenging. It takes more than just a mission statement or a few fun events.
It requires a dedicated effort to create an environment where imagination and disrupting the status quo are valued. It won’t happen overnight, but with the right focus, resolve and enthusiasm it can take hold.
Here are five key principles that will help you build a sustainable culture of innovation:
1. Be inclusive. Innovation should be open to everyone in your organization. It’s not the job of just one department or team. After all, you never know who the next big idea will come from. Communicate to employees that it’s OK to take risks and to fail, and then walk the walk. And don’t forget your middle managers. Remind them that the time employees spend innovating is just as important as traditional work activities.
2. Use the right tools. Innovation activities are not one size fits all. You’ll need different tools and techniques depending on the activity and its desired outcome. Be clear on why you’re doing an activity as well as your success criteria from the beginning.
3. Keep it fun. To get people to feel comfortable doing uncomfortable things, you must make it fun. Market events creatively to generate buzz. Choose an entertaining theme, dress up in funny costumes or play games to help people let their guard down. Executives must lead the way, actively participating and showing employees it’s time to start thinking and acting differently.
4. Make it purposeful. You can’t innovate for the sake of innovating. Make sure everything you’re doing is working toward solving a business problem or creating new business value. Innovation events should have a business intent, not just a technology focus. You want to encourage non-tech people to participate without being intimidated. Technology is an enabler, not the solution.
5. Don’t stand still. Start small — use the crawl, walk, run method of learning and building confidence. Make sure you openly celebrate successes and learn from failures. Develop innovation playbooks so you can repeat your process across departments, helping to organically expand knowledge and capabilities. But, never be complacent. There is always a new way to be creative.
Most people will do what they always do — stay comfortable in the status quo. As a leader, it’s your job to shake things up. Encourage and reward those who break out of the norm and foster innovative thinking.
Building an inclusive, purposeful, innovative culture isn’t easy, but the best things never are.
Tim Cunningham is chief information officer and vice president at Grange Insurance. Since taking the CIO role in 2016, Tim has been instrumental in building a culture of innovation, ensuring that the company continues to not just survive, but thrive in the future.