The Best Intentions: Why Preserving a Culture of Innovation is as Important as Creating One


It happens too often: a small business or startup achieves success with an innovative approach, disrupting the market and making a big name for themselves. Yet, a year later, the same business looks nearly identical to the larger, corporate counterparts that it set out to be different from. 

What happened to that innovative approach?

More often than not, as companies grow and achieve success, it becomes more and more necessary for them to become segmented and even arranged into more hierarchical structures. Employee roles become more defined, and often innovation gets “assigned” to a specific team or department. Coupled with the competitive nature of corporate America, where employees jockey to hit preset benchmarks that bring them into the conversation for promotions, innovation begins to take a back seat as companies grow into a larger economic reach.

While it might have been an innovative approach that led the company to where they are, with economic success comes increasing pressure to maintain the status quo. Thus, while many companies start out as innovative, disruptive market forces, they all too often fall back into the same segmented, bureaucratic practices that stifle continued innovation.

If we want to prevent our organizations from falling into the same trap, we need to keep in mind a few important rules for preserving innovation.

Innovation Isn't Formulaic

There is no linear formula for innovation. There's no amount of money or man hours that we can throw at innovation that will guarantee success. Like many creative efforts, some of the most innovative ideas pop into our heads at seemingly random moments, and there's no way to have those “Eureka!” moments at will. As Eric Schmidt, long-time CEO of Google, explains in his recent tell-all, How Google Works,

“Innovative people do not need to be told to do it, they need to be allowed to do it… You need to have confidence in your people, and enough self-confidence to let them identify a better way.” 

However, this doesn't mean we should pause all our business operations until Newton's proverbial apple hits us on the head. The key to preserving innovation lies in creating a clear objective and vision for your company's innovation practices and subsequently allowing for an extensive amount of experimentation and reflection. Remember, we cannot use standardized methods to analyze the “success” of our innovation trials. 

Allow For Healthy Failure

Along these lines, we have to acknowledge that not every idea works. While we all know that some amount of failure is necessary for business success, many of us don’t understand the importance of instilling this at the heart of our culture. Our teams cannot be afraid to fail. The more ideas pitched without fear of being critiqued, the more likely we are to find one that succeeds.

The challenge is to create a culture where failure is accepted, but not as an end point. Let employees explore every idea knowing that if (and often, when) they fail, they won't be punished or ridiculed. Naveen Tewari, founder and CEO of Inmobi, explains that real innovation is a process that requires direction, time and a new approach. In Fast Company, he argues, 

“Recognizing that real innovation could only come hand in hand with some level of failed experimentation, it became impossible to measure innovation by traditional metrics of growth. A failed project with innovation lessons can still count as 'growth.” 

Create Connections

As a company grows, it's natural that they take on an increasingly segmented, hierarchical structure. However, this often prevents a healthy amount of communication between different levels or departments of the company. Even with email, text messaging, and internal chats, ideas don't often get shared beyond departmental walls. While this structure ensures that specific teams remain focused on their goals, it is highly counterproductive to the kind of cross-pollination that enables innovation.

To encourage creative problem solving, we need to ensure our companies are promoting connections across departments and hierarchies. Often, the best ideas arise from joint efforts of seemingly-unrelated divisions. The old adage applies here: two minds are better than one. The more we collaborate, the more ideas that are shared, and the more likely we are to end up with an innovative product.

Design with Creativity in Mind

Office design is an important factor in promoting collaboration and innovation, but it's about more than just breaking down walls. Yes, removing rows of cubicles can encourage our employees to begin sharing, but we also need to realize that private, quiet spaces are equally as important for innovation. Employees need areas where they can work collaboratively, but also where they can work privately. David Silverman, an architect and principal at Silverman Trykowski Associates, thinks creating dedicated workspaces for different tasks is crucial for workplace innovation. Forbes points out that,

“Silverman has found that providing a variety of meeting spaces that can be tailored to the task at hand encourages workplace innovation. ‘Ideally, you want break-out collaborative space where teams can brainstorm, as well as private conference rooms in different sizes.’”

Even if office space is limited, it's important to find ways to offer physical space that's aligned with the problems we strive to solve and the goals we aim to achieve.

When it comes to innovation, success can be just as detrimental as failure (and in some cases, more detrimental!). It's certainly never a bad thing when our business grows and expands, but it's important that we don't rest on our laurels when it comes to continued innovation. Preserve the culture of innovation that you worked so hard to build, and you and your business will continue to grow and evolve, creating more success stories in the years to come. 

How are you preserving innovation in your workplace? Let us know by tweeting @EidsonPartners!

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