The culture of innovation is coming of age and proving to be a prized driver of business success

September 11, 2019

Beyond the basics: how to inspire and best benefit from a culture of innovation (COI).

It should come as no surprise that innovation has become a top priority for corporations, start-ups and enterprises of all types and sizes. The degree of innovation, the playing fields where it takes place and even its very definition — all have all grown and diversified exponentially in recent years.

Where once we’d see sporadic innovations springing from major mechanical or scientific breakthroughs, today’s product, service and digital experience creators are pumping out new innovations from moment to moment. There are still solitary basement inventors, garage incubators, government think tanks, innovation labs and corporate R&D departments cranking out innovation today. But the latest — and still relatively new — innovation source is forming through the adoption of diverse cultures of innovation integrated across entire organizations.

Unless you’ve sworn off of social media, haven’t visited your LinkedIn account or opened your email recently, you’ve probably read about the culture of innovation. You may even have experienced it firsthand at work. Much has been written on the topic by the likes of McKinsey and Accenture, among others, but the common thread reveals a few key actions necessary to create a thriving culture of innovation:

  • Encourage all employees to be creative and innovative
  • Promote (or require) cross functional collaboration
  • Reward experimentation and risk-taking
  • Support (or tolerate) failure in the pursuit of learning
  • Empower through a flatter corporate hierarchy

What this top-line composite list of common COI directives may lack in detail, it does provide an opportunity to augment with other attributes based on our experience with clients in the innovation space.

Increase your innovation odds through open participation

Now in our fourth decade as a leading brand and innovation firm, Tenet Partners has successfully collaborated with countless product and service clients, and their customers, to create innovative solutions. Although we are a team of experienced and talented brand and design innovators, it no longer surprises us that inspiration for great ideas can come from just about anyone, anywhere, at any time. Of course, you need a way to harness inspiration and translate that into viable, real-world solutions (more on that below), but having diverse and numerous sources of input offers clear benefit over limiting contributions to a core team or sweating it out alone.

Larger organizations have the distinct advantage of numbers, with each employee bringing a unique blend of experiences and expertise to challenges. Opening participation in innovation up to more people increases the odds of finding the right inspiration for the next breakthrough product or service. It is well worth casting the net far beyond just your internal R&D, Engineering or Consumer Insights departments.

Break down innovation silos

Many companies still have rigid divisions between very specialized functions. Sometimes those individual functions can be quite innovative, even in unexpected areas such as accounts receivable, HR, IT or custodial services. Typically, pockets of innovative thought are confined to creatively solving problems for the innovators’ own departments. By utilizing a cross-functional COI approach and cross-pollinating ideas with other departments, however, the innovative output can be far richer.

Innovative ideas developed for one purpose may be applicable to other functions, potentially delivering company-wide benefits. A filing idea in the mail room might inspire a digital application concept in software design, a cafeteria backroom workaround might lead to a unique structural packaging solution, or a quarterly boardroom meeting presentation might inspire your next great advertising campaign.

Visualize innovation concepts to make them universally understood

Numerous innovation methodologies and tools are available to companies building or flourishing in their COI approach, many incorporating variations on design thinking. Empathy, one of the cornerstones of effective design thinking, is traditionally considered a way for innovators to understand the consumers or end users of one’s goods or services and the experiences they encounter. Empathy is also invaluable internally when collaborating with cross-functional teams who do not always work, think or even communicate in the same ways. It is all too easy for inspirational seed ideas to get lost in translation without a way to share thoughts in a clear and universal way.

At Tenet we utilize our Co-Magination® approach where design innovators, skilled in the techniques of organizing and visualizing conceptual material, are integrally involved at every step in the innovation process. When concepts are visualized on the wall, everyone can see and understand the same ideas, and be inspired by them to build iterative variations and improvements. It’s a matter of not losing the designer when design thinking.

Align innovations with your brand

Innovation usually proves most effective if it is consistent with, and supportive of, what the organization’s brand stands for. A healthy and broad-reaching employee engagement program can ensure everyone understands and lives by the same brand promise, principles and messaging. It can also lay the foundation for innovation that is consistent with the brand.

The most successful new products and services are those that build on a brand and are identifiable as “something we’d expect from them.” Innovating with your brand in mind is important; Innovation can lead to significant market successes through disruption, but disruption for disruption’s sake can be risky business and potentially dilute or contradict who you are.

Monitor and measure innovation to gauge business success

Increasing innovation across an organization has clear advantages and offers significant rewards when undertaken effectively. Determining what success means and measuring it is also incredibly important and can be equally challenging. The ability to attract and retain top talent, gain market share and increase profitability are among many factors that can be measured to gauge impact.

Knowing where you are on the path to a fully integrated innovative culture, how it is paying off, or simply where you stand versus competition, makes measurement of your COI invaluable to your business success. Tenet Partners’ ongoing Brand Power research, which we publish in our annual Top 100 Most Powerful Brands report, recently added Culture of Innovation as a metric to predict value and cash flow. As James Gregory, Tenet Partners Chairman Emeritus reports “By adding the Culture of Innovation attribute to the historical attributes, the predictability of the cash flow multiple improved from 64% to 77%.” Other organizations also see the value of measuring innovation: last year, McKinsey published a study showing a strong correlation between integrating design thinking approaches across an organization and significant, measurable revenue growth and shareholder returns.

The bottom line: enhance and go beyond the basic principles of COI

  • Embrace the likelihood that your next great innovation could be surfaced or inspired by almost anyone in your organization.
  • Encourage cross-functional team collaboration, even if they speak entirely different innovation languages.
  • Take advantage of your organization’s size and diversity to increase your odds of successful innovation.
  • Harness design-thinking talent and visualization skills to capture and communicate concepts throughout.
  • Align your innovation efforts with a clear and consistent expression of your brand.
  • Track how well your COI is delivering on key metrics such as talent retention, brand value and financial rewards, among others.
  • Treat your COI as you would any good innovation initiative: collaborate, iterate, learn, and adjust as needed.

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