The Four Steps to Building A Culture Of Innovation

by Tom Koulopoulos

A Culture Of Innovation doesn’t just happen. It has to be built. Here’s How.

The Four Steps to Building A Culture Of InnovationI’ve often had CEOs tell me, “I want to build a culture of innovation. Can you come in and put one in place?” I feel like a Navy Seal called in to somehow covertly free the company from the shackles of it’s founder. Inevitably that cry for help points to a classic problem that I call “The Founder’s Dilemma.” Here’s how it works.

You’re an entrepreneur. Innovation is what you do. It’s who you are. It’s why your business exists. So, naturally, you end up being the one who comes up with the really good ideas. After all, it is your business.

Good luck with that!

An innovation culture may stem from the founder but to scale it has to be sustained by the organization. Yet, often it’s the founder’s zeal for innovation that acts as its greatest barrier.

Cultures need rituals and a process to reinforce innovation. They need leaders who back off and pass innovation onto others, and then recognize them when they succeed and support them when they fail at something worth trying. Otherwise people and organizations suffer from a fear of failure.



So, here’s the reality of being a great innovator; you have to let go of the innovation baton and pass it on to others. It’s what the quintessential innovator, Steve Jobs, did with Tony Fadell and the iPod. Who, by the way, also then went on to create the Nest Thermostat, which brought the Internet of Everything into our homes.

Be courageous, challenge people to come up with the next idea-incremental or great, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is signaling clearly that innovation can come from anyone!

So how do you do it? Put in place these four cornerstones of your innovation culture and tend to them relentlessly.

1. Get Culturally Creative

Think in terms of what’s valuable in your culture. In my second company I had a policy that no office, even my own, would have a door. Why? I wanted to signal that in our culture everyone had the license and the responsibility to work in interrupt mode. The result was that ideas flowed freely, constantly, and unfettered.

2. Set The Tone

You are a role model for innovation but you cannot be its only source. Advertise the success of others and their ideas. Talk about how the seeds of innovation are taking root throughout the company. Be sure to applaud, recognize, and reward innovators, no matter how small their innovations. Most importantly, let them fail; innovation is a numbers game.

3. Establish a Budget and a Process for Nurturing New Ideas.

This isn’t R&D. Instead it’s for any idea that is worth exploring. It’s a hedge bet against outside innovation. Every now and then one idea will fly out of the park. It only takes a few of those to illustrate how innovation is part of your culture.

4. Share The Story

Make sure the innovation story is a story about your organization, not a story about YOU and the ONE great idea that launched your business. Instead, make it a story about the culture of innovation and the many people who have sustained it; giving others role models and the license to have something to strive for.

You see, you don’t create a culture of innovation overnight; you can’t send in Seal Team Six to infiltrate the culture you have and suddenly alter it. You need to slowly put in place these four cornerstones; the behaviors and the processes that make innovation what everyone does, every single day.

This article was originally published on Inc.

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Thomas KoulopoulosTom Koulopoulos is the author of 10 books and founder of the Delphi Group, a 25-year-old Boston-based think tank and a past Inc. 500 company that focuses on innovation and the future of business. He tweets from @tkspeaks.tom