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17th Nov

Building a culture of innovation

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What is it about the word “innovation” which strikes fear into so many business hearts?  For far too long, innovation and invention have been mixed up, intertwined in some strange world which is perceived as alien and belonging to “those who are different”.  Whilst acknowledging that invention drives the world forward, in mainstream business the inventor or innovator has been seen as a breed apart, destined to lurk in a sealed department or work for a specialist organisation.

 

But now the call has gone out.  Innovators of the world, step forward, your time has come.  No, longer seen as a threat, business leaders across the world are recognising that innovation is a force for good and it is that very innovation which can help organisations to stand out above the crowd.  Innovation is now seen as a vital part of the business culture and can best be summed up as:

 

“The creation of the new and/or differentiated in order to add value to the customer and drive commercial return for the creator.”

 

Adding value for customers.  Driving commercial return.  These aren’t tasks which belong to one person or one department.  These are challenges for the entire organisation.  Any employee who comes up with an idea to help customer service or improve commercial return is an innovator.  So, the switchboard operator who suggests an alternate number for certain customers to use is an innovator; the employee who saves paper by instituting a scrap paper basket is an innovator; the machine shop worker who suggests altering a process to improve product reliability is an innovator.

 

But why should a business transform itself into one in which innovation is embraced rather than feared?  Quite simply, if you don’t change then you are handing your peers a competitive advantage on a plate.  Encouraging a spirit of innovation:

Fosters employee engagement

Cuts waste

Boosts productivity

Increases profitability

Improves customer satisfaction

 

More importantly, a business which encourages innovation is a flexible business; one which is better prepared to respond to and capitalise on market conditions.  So, how do you go about embedding innovation into a business culture?

 

The first steps can be simple.  Innovation and empowerment go hand in hand.  This doesn’t necessarily mean chucking away the rule book but it does mean encouraging employees to take responsibility for their own roles and to look for ways to improve.  For example, a help desk may transform from being simply a “computer says” model to a department in which the employees don’t let a query drop until it has been completed to the satisfaction of the customer.  Along the way this may mean cross-training and breaking down departmental silos, taking responsibility for problems and being encouraged to come up with solutions.

 

On a grander, but still simple level, rewarding innovative suggestions will encourage employees to seek better ways of carrying out tasks.  Other cost effective measures may include cross-departmental meetings to iron out complex processes or to explore improvements to product quality or service.  We have even come across one company leader who recommends asking the cleaner for advice as they are probably the only person who visits every department within the organisation on a regular basis.

 

Whilst the pathway to embedding innovation will vary from organisation to organisation the lead has to come from the top.  Removing strict rules, doing away with the blame game and replacing it with empowered innovation requires strong leadership driving the culture change.  Managers and team leaders may require training and guidance but they will only respond to this if the message has been communicated from the top that a fresh wind of innovation is blowing the cobwebs away.

 

The transformation may take time.  There may be slip ups along the way but these are likely to be fewer than anticipated as empowered employees do their best for the organisation which they now embrace.  At the end of the day the revived innovative organisation will stand stronger, fitter and more able to respond quickly to customer needs and market demands.  In effect the only business which should fear innovation is the one which hasn’t embraced innovation as they see their competitors disappear into the profitable distance.

 

By Jo Geraghty

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