Five Surprising Qualities of Innovation Cultures
In which Jill says that Step 1 in building a culture of innovation may be getting out of your own way.
In his 2012 book "The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation," science writer Jon Gertner tells the story of Bill Shockley, one of Bell Labs’ principal transistor technology developers. Shockley described a particularly difficult period of innovation as “the natural blundering process of finding one’s way.”
— The New IT: How Technology Leaders Are Enabling Business Strategy in the Digital Age (McGraw-Hill, 2015), page 165.
It’s become a drinking game. Any time a conference keynote speaker says the word “innovation,” you take a sip of beer. And any time he or she declares that a company that isn’t innovative can’t be competitive, you have to down a shot of tequila (lime and salt, optional).
But what’s really required to create an innovation culture? Do digital-first companies like Google—celebrated for its glasses, self-driving cars, and other “moonshots”—always have the edge? In my discussions with IT leaders I discovered common qualities that have made innovation thrive at companies like Google, Nordstrom, Johnson & Johnson, and Lego.
These companies and others that have excelled at innovation share five common habits:
- Inclusiveness. The image of the innovation lab as a walled garden, populated by deep thinkers who have relinquished their day jobs in order to well, think deeply, is quickly becoming cliché. The reality is that innovation happens through a loose network of people both inside and outside a company’s four walls. For example, Shell’s GameChanger program encourages employees across divisions to submit new ideas, also inviting participation from partners and external entrepreneurs.
- Tolerance for conflict. Innovation can be complicated and political. Instead of the quiet think tank most people envision, the innovation lab is complete with aptly-named war-rooms, where people draw on glass walls and argue their own approaches. In the end more than one idea might make it to the proof-of-concept stage, where the battle might continue. Relationships can fray. There can be carnage. The winner is person with the best executable idea. The fact that the unapologetic entrepreneurs thrive in this climate of contention motivates companies to keep investing in it.
- An understanding of a deeper mission. It’s easy to see why a company like Eli Lilly or JPL would want to formalize innovation. But you don’t need a bevy of scientists in order to fuel an innovation culture. Large-scale improvements and wholesale inventions can deepen customer relationships (Salesforce.com), make people more productive (Apple), and protect people who protect people (USAA). In these cases, innovation has become part of the company’s mission and, by extension, its brand.
- The ability to sideline internal problems. The more time a company’s leaders spend on organizational issues, product fixes, process improvements, problem employees and politics, the less time they have to set up environment to support innovation. Innovation invites creativity, collaboration, movement, space, materials, and yes, some strife.
- A knack for spreading the word. Big ideas aren’t enough. Companies need to nurture innovation by applying clear execution processes in order to create new business models or develop new products. Executives at innovative companies include innovation in their communications. They herald innovation successes, encourage employees to support the new product or service, and to join them in proselytizing its value. They need to talk to one another and to customers. Ironically diffusing an innovation both inside and outside of a company’s four walls often works best using analog engagement methods, like face-to-face meetings and live demonstrations.
No, your company doesn’t have to be born digital to cultivate a culture of innovation. You just need to have the discipline to look beyond the immediate horizon. But keep a nice, aged Anejo around, just in case.