4 Attributes Of A Robust Innovation Culture

We all like to think our enterprise has a creative, dynamic culture--but how many really do? Put yours to the test.

Bobby Cameron, Contributor

September 19, 2012

5 Min Read

Changing the culture of an organization from process-oriented and bureaucratic to innovative and creative isn't easy. It takes time and requires more than just training sessions.

But before CIOs can help build an innovation culture, they need to know where their organization stands today. Everyone wants to believe they encourage innovation, but CIOs need to start by honestly answering the question, "Do we have an environment that enables the workforce to be creative?"

To help in this self-assessment, in research for Forrester's Innovation Playbook we uncovered four critical attributes of an innovative culture:

1. Trust: Employees must have confidence in the corporate innovation strategy.

Employees should feel confident that the organization will follow through on its commitments to support the innovation process. Trust is developed over the long term from watching what people (especially executives) do, how mistakes are treated, whether promises are kept, how much experimentation is encouraged, and who gets recognized and for what behaviors.

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For example, are executives providing time for employees to have innovation rap sessions? Are good ideas recognized in team meetings, and are employees encouraged to take these ideas to next level? Google's "20% Creative Time" policy, in which engineers are encouraged to work on things not in their job description is a good example of this.

The flip side: Do employees need to take extensive personal time--nights and weekends, or even time off--to get in on an innovative project?

2. Acceptance of failure: Leaders convey that failure is acceptable and without stigma.

Sustained innovation requires frequent and rapid failure--so leaders must have specific tactics that show they will accept and even honor failures in the innovation process. First, people need to learn from the missteps, so it's crucial to have a means of sharing these learning experiences, such as through an internal wiki or other platform.

Second, innovators must feel they can talk honestly within their internal network about failures, and ask for feedback without feeling that they're being evaluated. India's conglomerate TATA, like many organizations, rewards creative projects that work. But TATA also has a "Dare To Try" reward for ideas that fail. TATA's leaders understand that employees learn from failures, and this accepting environment encourages people to come up with ideas that are genuinely different and not necessarily safe. Innovation carries risk. Unless there are frequent failures, people aren't thinking creatively enough.

3. Flexibility: Good ideas find fertile ground, even if they require fundamental change.

Innovation addresses all manner of opportunities, and many big ideas demand significant organizational changes in order to happen. Too often, big ideas are not implemented because these necessary changes seem too daunting. To allow new opportunities, companies must encourage new ideas and creative approaches even if they buck longstanding processes.

Innovation must be as inclusive as possible--open to all employees, and even to customers and partners. Leaders must have the flexibility to provide the time, support, and structure for innovation to happen.

A good example is Ultimate Software's "48 Hours" program. After a new product release, Ultimate gives all development people 48 hours to work on whatever idea they think might be good for the company. The one constraint is time--after two days, the self-organized teams must showcase their ideas to the entire company. Ultimate issues this challenge following product releases because there's a natural lull in the development cycle--the time pressure of a coming release is gone, and the ideas generated can be considered for the next product cycle.

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4. Open communication: Managers' support of the innovation process sets the tone.

Employees need to feel comfortable talking about their ideas openly and in a healthy give-and-take environment. A manager who effectively spurs broader thinking and greater innovation encourages idea generation that builds on the ideas of others--think of an oral wiki.

However, these open discussions will be more fruitful if you have a clear framework for what turns a clever idea into a valuable business innovation. For example, Whirlpool uses a technique it calls "I-box screening," which identifies three criteria for an idea to be considered innovative. To pass I-box screening, an idea must create: --A unique and compelling solution valued by customers and aligned to Whirlpool brands --Competitive advantage that is difficult to copy --Differentiated shareholder value Whirlpool innovation teams often combine two or more employees' ideas into one more powerful idea that meets the company's "I-box" screening criteria for innovation.

Why is assessing and fostering an innovation culture your responsibility? As a CIO, you're one of the few executives who work directly with every part of the company. You help create and accelerate the innovation process and frequently chair the innovation teams that drive the process. Whether or not it's formally recognized, the innovation leadership role is part of your responsibility for the technology that underpins most business opportunities--whether that technology is embedded in products and services, supports operational processes, or fuels marketing and sales efforts. Taking that role will give you a chance to develop a culture for creative thinking that goes beyond the IT organization.

Bobby Cameron is a vice president and principal analyst and Claire Schooley is a senior analyst at Forrester Research, where they serve CIOs.

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About the Author(s)

Bobby Cameron


Bobby Cameron is a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research where he serves CIOs.

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