How to create a culture of innovation

May 2, 2021 | Thomas De Vos

The assumptions of yesterday won’t work in the reality of today. If you want to stay relevant in this new reality your organization must be aware of new technologies, invent smart business models, predict disruptive trends and be prepared for any change in customer behaviour. There is no escape from it. It is your moral duty to understand your customers’ struggles and needs, the changes in their world and lives. We need to be aware of this by listening to our customers and respond in a way that is both agile and fast. Only then we can provide them with the best advice and help them in making critical choices, so they can cope with the reality of tomorrow.



Thinking vision board

Look around and you will notice that a lot of traditional organizations are transforming into software organizations. The services they offer are heavily dependent on software providing solutions for the needs and expectations of their end users. These organizations are facing a major challenge. 

Software development never stops, on the contrary, the iterations and revolutions are pushed towards us faster than ever. In addition, your current customers become less and less loyal, due to the huge range of products and services that they are confronted with, and must always be convinced of your added value.

Now, it is impossible for a single person to know and anticipate on what is technically feasible. He or she can’t shape the future and understand what will live in the heads of your customers tomorrow. The only solution is that your organization activates all the employees by cultivating a culture of innovation which implies also a culture of experimenting.

How do you create a culture of innovation?

First and foremost, innovation isn’t just a term but it contains ideas, value and reality. Always use this focus to evaluate what is coming and what you must do.

As an organization it is time to change from a culture of “delivery” to a culture of “learning”. This can only be done in an environment that allows the ideas of people to develop in each level of your organisation. It’s your employees time to shine and it is your task to provide them with the necessary oxygen and freedom to let them create small teams and work together. 

Pay attention to the composition of the team. Why? Because this phase is critical and must meet several requirements

Runners ready to go

1. Together

We don’t want our organization to consist of silos. The team members that are working with one another, ideally work in different departments throughout the organization. Functions or titles are non-existent. Every person and every idea are equally valuable. Do you want to have passion and drive in your team? Give your teammates the freedom to decide what they want to do. Even if that person takes on a task that isn’t his or her expertise on the business card. Remember: what your team members will connect, is the deep love of constant learning and the intense curiosity about what it takes to innovate.


2. Shared goal and involvement

Go for a genuine involvement based on consensus-based decision-making. Your innovators are part of the project from beginning to end. It is crucial that they are always involved in every major decision. Every person of your team must have a clear view on the totality of the big project. Your goal is that each participant has the feeling of empowerment and trust. This will encourage everyone in the company to work and experiment towards a shared goal. Often, this way of working will result in even more innovative solutions that will deliver big benefits to the organization. 

3. Structure and self-direction

As a company you want to prepare your employees to become problem solvers. Don’t give the team off-the-shelf solutions to implement, but ask them to propose a solution to solve a problem that gets them to their ultimate goal: creating business value.

To compel them to have a clear focus and to be sure they have a plan, the innovation team must set clear expected deliverables and arbitrary deadlines. There must be a time-boxed time frame and pressure, otherwise they will lose focus. In the end, the team has to present a solution, even if it’s a solution with a negative impact.

We need a good team structure to create a culture of innovation. A team that is too big will not work and will reduce operational speed and benefits. We need small, dedicated and agile teams that are physically sitting close together. Small disciplinary teams could do big things. 

Just like scrum teams, they must be self-directed. They must know what to do, who is going to do it and when they should do it in order to reach their goals. It is perfectly normal to have a non-linear project flow because the backlog will be full of questions, not features. The number of solved features is no guarantee of success and if it doesn’t solve the initial main question it is not important. Just one simple feature iteration or improvement in your product could have a bigger impact than all the others.

Tired behind laptop

4. Ambitious

Innovation teams must think BIG. If they set incremental goals like, we want to have 5% more sales they will probably just aim for the 5% increase and stop, which is a normal human behaviour. If they set the goal to aim for the sky, then big things could happen, because it will allow them to think differently without any restrictions. 

If the team needs start-ups to have a kick start then involve them. There is no need to spend innovation time to reinvent the wheel. Use the precious time to iterate existing solutions or to combine them and create new solutions with it.

In any case, teams should define what “success” is for them, as long if it solves a real need and can be adopted. The success must not be dramatic. Even a small incremental change or a new feature that increases engagement with your users could be enough. Don’t be afraid to envision a success which is different than the others, that focuses only delivering expected results. 

5. Teams are allowed to fail

It is essential that organizations create a culture that embraces failure by providing psychological safety. Employees can ask questions, which is more important than finding the right answers. As a result, they will learn to try new things and even if they fail, they can try a new approach rather than get penalized. Each team must define a fail rate. In the end, failing is a learning process too. Failing goes hand in hand with experimenting and is a necessary step towards success. The organization must understand that experimenting is worth an investment. It is a challenge to keep the team enthusiastic after failing and appreciate their efforts. At all costs, you must avoid a culture of ownership, finger pointing and people watching their backs.

6. From problem to prototyping

Prototyping is an ideal manner to show in which direction the team wants to go and makes ideas more tangible. Please, create and test your prototypes in the wild with the actual end users! It will give the team direct unbiased feedback, generate empathy and a clear understanding of their needs and context the end users are operating in. The team will be confronted with the fact that they can’t rely on their gut-feeling alone.

To start a cultural change, it is a must to share your knowledge and prototypes not only with the stakeholders, but also with other people in the organization and , not to forget, with clients too. After all, seeing is believing. So go out and show your work. Use all the tools you can find to share your ideas and prototypes, like for instance: short lunch meetings, demo’s during coffee breaks, conference calls with clients etc. Go and create a lab to showcase your expertise. The experience itself may inspire a cultural shift.

Working in team

How to keep supporting the innovation culture?

Reward the team and let them own the solution they have created. Don’t stop after the single milestone they have reached, but allow them to keep learning and improving their “baby”. Avoid the trap of scaling the initial team after a significant success, avoid overanalyzing, avoid over staffing and definitely avoid throwing money recklessly about. Keep the team small and powerful and keep mapping each idea to the business value and invest appropriately.

Provide psychological safety to the innovation team members by giving them the feeling that it is safe to take risks. Tell them it is okay to speak up and to keep challenging each other without compromising their status in the team or in the organization.

Retrospect your accomplishments after each milestone the team has reached. Have you solved the initial problem which was defined at the start? Are you on the right path? What shouldn’t we have done? What could we do better? Reflexivity must become the norm in your culture of innovation.

Football team

Result of an innovative culture

The installation of an experimental culture is slow and difficult, but is definitely worth the patience.

Firstly, it will make yourself and your clients happy, because you can solve their issues, or at least anticipate on the issues that might come up. 

Secondly, you will deliver more successful projects and services based on the learned experiences, which will generate more business successes.

Thirdly, the employees will not only unlock their own potential, but that of others too. It will create a natural drive of working together, trying to reach a shared goal, managing failure and getting to use the best talents in each individual.

Lastly, it will improve the moral of the employees, because of the satisfaction and involvement resulting in higher dedication and in less people leaving the company because their voice was not heard.

Now it's your turn

The installation of a culture of innovation will not only ask time, but also will involve some risky decisions. Furthermore, it will make the management team and other employees uncomfortable, because they are forced to go outside their own comfort zone. Failure will be a big part of it, even more than you want it to be. But the effort is more than worth it, if you begin to feel the growth that was missing in the past. So what are you waiting for?


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