Innovation can only thrive and flourish in an organisation that has a culture that supports innovation. That is easily said, but what does that mean in practice? Let us take a look at the process of an innovator to answer that question. An innovator has an idea for something new, tries it out, and if it does not work the first time, tries to figure out why it did not work in order to improve on that and try it out again, in the next experiment.

Therefore, innovation is a sequence of experiments that let the innovator learn and improve so that in the end the innovation is really there. Take Edison for example, he made 9000 different light bulbs that all did not work as needed, before he could make the one light bulb we are still using today.

There is no doubt that there was an innovation culture in Edison’s lab, but what do we need in our organisations to support innovation? What are the elements of an innovation culture?

1. Room for experiments

Let’s think a bit about this. Room for experiments means that we start projects of which we do not know up front, whether they will succeed. Of course we think they might succeed, otherwise we would not start them, but we might be proven wrong. A failed project delivers a learning curve that helps us better understand and get a step closer to the innovation we are actually aiming for. Giving room for experiments, means giving room for learning and improvement, a prerequisite for innovation and a successful organisation. In an organisation where a failed project means the end of your career, people will not experiment, and hence not learn, and there will be no innovation. A freeze frame situation.

2. Knowledge sharing

If we are not talking about a sole inventor in a secluded lab, but about an organisation with many employees, we should make sure that the learnings from experiments are shared. Otherwise an experiment that is run on one location, and fails, delivers only a local learning for the involved employees. If those learnings are not shared, the same experiment might be done in another unit of the organisation. We see many larger organisations doing the same experiments over and over again, in many different locations, as knowledge is not shared. Re-inventing the wheel is a waste of time, energy and money.

3. Low resistance to change

Innovation means that things will be done in a different way then before. A low resistance to change is needed to enable the implementation of innovations. It also means that rules and regulations in the organizations should be subject to discussion. If you ever hear “We do it like this because we have done it for more than 50 years like this”, then (1) there is resistance to change, but, more importantly, (2) there probably is a large opportunity for improvement. But this opportunity can only be realised if the resistance to change is tackled.

The resistance to change occurs at all levels of organisations. At a macro-level Kodak is a good example of not wanting to change over to digital photography because they were so good at traditional photography. At the micro-level many service innovations require to re-evaluate the rules and regulations that organisations have set themselves.

4. Collaboration

More and more, innovation cannot be done by the organisation by itself. Especially in the digital domain, innovation crosses organisations’ boundaries. Every company creates part of the innovation and builds on capabilities of other organisations to create the entire innovation project. Therefore, collaboration with other companies, whether it is existing business partners or startups, is needed in order to be able to innovate. 

This means that there should be room for employees to maintain relationships with other companies, and that the company should not be afraid to open up and discuss ideas with other companies.

5. Diversity and Inclusion

One of the key levers to create better innovations, is the combination of different perspectives, backgrounds and expertises. The bigger the diversity of people involved in innovation, the better the ideas are, the better the chances of solving complex problems are. This provides an argument for involving all employees in innovation activities. Even more, a culture cannot change if not all employees are included.

How to create an innovation culture?

Creating an innovation culture begins where innovation begins: with the creation of ideas for innovation. We have experienced that crowdsourcing for innovation provides a practical and easy first step to create an innovation culture as it addresses all of the elements above. From enabling all employees to participate in innovation to connecting with parties in the ecosystem. And from sharing knowledge across a large group to showing the expected behaviour by top management.

To anchor innovation in the culture of an organization, ideas ,however, are not enough. The best ideas should be developed into real innovations to show the organization that it can be innovative - to prevent the naysayers telling that the organization cannot be innovative, no matter what it tries. Keep on innovating and create an innovation culture now.