How Do You Cultivate Innovation?

This week's Culture Beat explores the qualities of truly innovative cultures. How does yours stack up?
May 31, 2012

Being innovative means solving a problem in a unique and creative way. Companies like Google, Apple, GE and Facebook have made billions because innovation is a principal value in everything they do. Given the positive associations with it, every organization likes to think it fosters innovation, but unfortunately, the truth is often much different. This week's Culture Beat explores the qualities of truly innovative cultures. How does yours stack up?

Promoting Pride in the Individual and the Organization

According to research recently published in the Journal of Business Venturing, which looked at two decades of data on 62 countries, both individualistic and nationalistic cultures support innovation. While it’s not a major surprise that individualism is strongly associated with innovation, a more intriguing finding is that cultures that value the success of the group and have high degrees of patriotism also encourage innovation in their people. Countries like Japan and Sweden, for instance, are traditionally more collectivist but are also extremely innovative.

Employing Transformational Leadership

Transformational leadership is a management style that seeks to positively impact the attitudes and behaviors of followers. Frequently described as high-energy and high on passion, transformational leaders are focused more on success of the people responsible for the outcome than the success of the outcome itself. Such managers promote intellectual curiosity, open communication, performance rewards and professional development. They are able to articulate a clear vision for progress and, by appealing to the moral high ground, serve as an inspirational role model for employees. Michael Dell of Dell, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Lou Gerstner of IBM and Martin Luther King Jr. are oft-cited examples of transformational leaders.

Giving People Permission to Fail

True innovators know that hitting upon a successful idea is a process of trial and error, and more often than not, you have to experiment with several approaches before finding one that works. Cultures infused with innovation are not risk-averse and don’t hold people back by always insisting on a revenue-winning outcome. By giving employees the freedom to fail, organizations also open themselves up to spectacular wins. Sounds a bit like transformational leadership, doesn’t it? And one need only to look at Microsoft to see it in action.

Don’t Restrict the Focus to R&D

Throwing some budget at research and development departments, or launching a siloed “innovation committee” will not definitively move your culture in the right direction.  Instead, employees in all areas of the business must be encouraged to weave innovative thinking into everyday tasks and projects, and should be rewarded for doing so.

Innovative Cultures Don’t Need Gatekeepers

Fast Company Co.Design bloggers Jens Martin Skibsted and Rasmus Bech Hansen claim that there is a new type of professional in American businesses specifically tasked with innovation. “Innovation custodians” are middle managers assigned to oversee innovators and their processes. “Innovation word-slingers” are external consultants who lead in-house innovation workshops. The problem with innovation professionals, say Skibsted and Hansen, is that they rarely have the maverick outlook that it takes to innovate in a substantive way. Also, innovation should be an attitude that organically runs through the heart of an organization and cannot be easily implemented by a manager with a to-do list.

Do you think your culture breeds innovation?  What advantages and disadvantages do small businesses have in this regard?

Alexandra Levit is a former nationally syndicated business and workplace columnist for The Wall Street Journal and the author of Blind Spots: The 10 Business Myths You Can’t Afford to Believe on Your New Path to SuccessMoney Magazine’s Online Career Expert of the Year, she regularly speaks at organizations and conferences on issues facing modern employees.

Illustration by Russell Christian