How to Design and Nurture Innovation as a Culture

Mudassar Malik

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The word “innovation” is synonymous with advances in technology. However, at its core, innovation boils down to the ability to adapt and discover new opportunities that enable new ways of working, building competitive advantages, and improving people’s lives.

For startups, disrupting hallowed industries and transforming entrenched business models is the culture that helps them innovate and act differently from the rest. Realizing the importance of quickly responding to rapidly changing market dynamics; larger, more well-established businesses are embracing the startup mindset and a culture of continuous innovation.

In this article, I’m going to share what I’ve learned about designing and nurturing Innovation as a Culture.

Designing an Innovation Culture

What does innovation mean in the context of your business? Is it about new products and customers’ experience? Processes and speed-to-market? Excelling at the existing business or radically transforming into new business lines and models? Establishing this should be your starting point. From here, you can begin to evaluate your culture and what’s needed to achieve the desired results.

Whether you are looking to optimize your current culture or lay the foundation for a new one, I’ve found the Design Thinking methodology extremely effective. Design Thinking helps in assessing and determining what barriers are preventing innovation, identifying what enablers are needed to bring your teams to their future state, and what accelerators need to be introduced to enhance efficiency.

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Several creative techniques of Design Thinking come into play to achieve all this, but then, that’s another article for another day. For now, let’s focus on the toughest part; getting started and keeping the culture alive and thriving.

Keeping it innovative is easier said than done

First and foremost, the innovation process must balance accountability and creativity for your people. End of the day, it has to be guided by the organization’s objectives, key focus areas, core capabilities, and commitments to stakeholders, while not choking creative thinkers with restrictive budgets and deadlines. You must remove the fear and create trust; otherwise, you will kill the ideas that fuel innovation before they ever get off the ground.

It’s much easier said than done, so here’s my pick of four best practices that will keep your culture (and innovation) on track.

Find the best and quickly: A culture of innovation cannot exist without its fundamental component — people. The race is on to hire those with varied skillsets, able to lend themselves to a variety of projects. To source, attract, and retain this new breed of talent, you need to augment your approach. From hiring and interview techniques to where you find them, you must embrace unorthodox methods. You are looking for people who won’t just lend a hand, instead, who WANT to solve problems. I’d even suggest forming a team with diverse backgrounds and interests so that you have a healthy balance to challenge one another.

Create an innovation playground: The difference between creativity and innovation can be summed up in one word — focus. In leading the charge of creating a culture of innovation, you must provide a safe place for ideas to be unleashed; however, that space must exist within the borders of organizational objectives. Think of it as a fenced-in playground. One where team members can let their creativity run free, all the while being kept in check by the confines and parameters of the business — hence, the focus. Too rigid an emphasis on things like budget and deadlines will only serve to hinder innovation — extinguishing the creative spark before it has a chance to shine. Once teams understand and trust the realm they can operate in — one rich in the freedom to pursue new ideas while still being accountable for practical and profitable development — you’ve begun fostering an innovation culture.

Stepping stones, not roadblocks: To further reinforce your innovation culture and maximize the output of your “playground,” it is essential to breakdown the hierarchal barriers. The goal is to provide your innovation with stepping stones, not roadblocks. Creativity rarely leads to innovation when it’s bottlenecked, and innovation can’t take flight when it has to find an opening in three executives’ schedules just to get the green light. To counter this, you need to allow for ideas to not only flow freely but have the required resources, time, and support when they happen and begin to take shape, not when you have an opening in your schedule.

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Push the boundaries of what’s possible: The practice of brainstorming is not new. It’s an opportunity where employees are encouraged to share their thoughts under the umbrella that no idea brought to the table is a bad one. But those ideas are, for the most part, reasonable and fall under the realm of possibility. But what about the seemingly impossible? Because it is only when people dare to do what has never been done before that true innovation takes shape. If it wasn’t for people pursuing what was once deemed as unreasonable, we’d all still be riding the horse and buggy around. The unreasonable and impossible are just that — until they aren’t.

Getting started is the hardest part

The reality is, everything’s changing at an accelerated rate. Uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity are the new norms of this modern world. To combat this, we need to remain creative, agile, and be able to embrace a state of constant innovation.

It’s best to start small, pick your focus, create an optimal cross-functional team around the mission, and let them experiment. This approach ensures ownership, collaboration, and provides opportunities for course-correction through continuous evaluation of the results of lean change experiments. Keep the best practices in play; eventually, you will create bigger and better disruptions.

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