6 Ways Leaders Can Build a Culture of Innovation

What makes an enterprise organization successful? Is it a phenomenal understanding of the market? A visionary growth strategy? A value-driven customer focus? A strategy that enables digital transformation, both from a tech standpoint and a culture standpoint? Yes, yes, yes and yes. So many yeses.

But there’s something else that would fall into an “all of the above” category: Winning enterprise companies are innovative, keeping them in front of the curve and always on the cusp of something bigger. And size doesn’t matter — if you compare the Fortune 500 lists for 1955 and 2017, you see there are only 60 companies on both. It’s a statistic that highlights the importance of innovation.

I’ve always been an innovation-first kind of person, and I’d like to focus here on fostering innovation from a leadership perspective. How can senior leadership ensure innovation that goes beyond the generation of a couple of new ideas and turn that into a strategic, guiding principle that touches every part of the company? Here are six ways to do just that.

Embrace a Multi-Faceted Approach to Innovation, Starting at the Bottom

We often think of innovation as something that happens in brainstorming sessions about irresistible new products, where someone develops clever marketing campaigns to launch and sell the heck out of them. But take the product out of the equation for a moment and consider a multifaceted approach to innovation across your entire organization. Forbes, for example, suggests starting with the “4 P’s: profit models, processes, products, and policies.” Breaking innovation down into these factions and tackling them as individual challenges will allow you to move faster and with more operational agility.

Empower Your Employees and They’ll Provide Value in New Ways

Innovation as a corporate value means creating a culture where every employee feels he or she has some level of autonomy — with expectations, of course — to think independently and find new ways to solve problems. Great leaders make smart decisions, but they also know they can’t — and shouldn’t — do it all alone. Leading is as much about listening, mentoring, trusting and empowering your teams as it is about anything else.

Understand That Failing Is OK

If you’re never failing, chances are you’re not innovating much. Failure is inevitable when you’re fostering a culture of innovation, and that’s part of the challenge — the reality that there’s almost always a degree of uncertainty. Fear has been called an “innovation crippler,” and while no one sets out intending to fail, understanding that it will happen — and that you’ll be just fine when it does — is a mark of a great leader.

Choose Your Approach to Innovation Metrics Wisely

We all know data matters, but can you measure something as intangible as an idea? Even harder — an idea culture? You can, as long as you look long and hard at what it is you’re going to actually measure. Whatever your industry, you’ll undoubtedly need numbers on customer activity in relation to your product or service — that’s a no brainer — but look elsewhere too.

What about the return on your strategic partnerships? How about getting the data on how much time your team actually has to dedicate to discovery? How many of them have been trained on what it means to innovate? Isolate what can change the game for your organization, and build your approach to innovation metrics from there.

Don’t Be Afraid to Take Action — and Quickly

To truly create a culture of innovation, you must be willing to encourage action on innovative ideas, not just produce continuous conceptual chatter. This isn’t to say that every idea is a great one or every new product proposal should go directly to prototyping. Take time to gather data and make an informed decision — but not too much time. Whether you invest more of your resources or take a different path, be agile enough to make those choices in a way that’s confident and measured, and with no more downtime than is absolutely necessary.

Learn from the Past and Look to the Future

According to Accenture’s 2015 US Innovation Survey, 60% of companies admitted they did not learn from past mistakes in relationship to their approach to corporate innovation. That’s a lot! Also, 72% of organizations polled said they often missed opportunities to exploit underdeveloped areas or markets. Ironically, many of the same companies indicated they were highly confident in their innovation performance.

This discrepancy in perception about what it means to be successful innovating on the corporate level is proof that many leaders don’t take the time to learn from their mistakes. It’s important to fix what isn’t working while moving forward. I know I said failing is OK — and it is — but complacency with failure is not.

The Burning House

As a bonus tip, consider the “burning house” scenario. If your house was on fire, what would you grab as you ran out the door? Now apply it to your business: What would you want to take with you if it all came crashing down? I’d grab the ability to innovate and to inspire innovation in my team — that’s the foundation for growth, the difference-maker, the special sauce.

What would you take? What does innovation look like in your organization? Are you approaching it as an idea factory you only visit on occasion, or have you embraced innovation as a strategic imperative? Can you think of any additional ways leaders can create a culture of innovation other than those I’ve mentioned above? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

As an aside, if this topic is of interest to you, check out this post by Hewlett-Packard’s Vincent Brissot. He makes some really salient points on things you may not be taking into consideration.

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This article was originally published in 2017 and was updated in July 2019.