Building a Culture of Innovation: 5 Business Leaders Share Tips

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Innovation has become a goal for businesses of all sizes. Entrepreneurs aspire to innovate and disrupt within their industry. Enterprise CEOs strive to build cultures of innovation. But what does it really mean?

Wikipedia defines innovation as "a new idea, creative thoughts, new imaginations in the form of device or method."

Taking it a step further, MaRS startup consultancy defines a culture of innovation as "an environment that supports creative thinking and advances efforts to extract economic and social value from knowledge, and, in doing so, generates new or improved products, services or processes."

The question remains, what's the best way to build a culture of innovation? We asked business leaders spanning a variety of backgrounds to share their best advice. From customer experience consultants and keynote speakers to HR partners, here are five tips that can apply to any business of any size. If you're looking for ways to encourage innovation and build an environment that's open to change, consider these five tips.

Tip #1: Foster Non-Stop Curiosity

Chip Bell, World-Renowned Authority on Customer Loyalty and Service Innovation, has literally written books about how to innovate. For Bell, it all starts with curiosity. He encourages leaders to find ways to guide their employees towards questioning the status quo and pushing them to discover new ways of approaching problems. In his opinion, fostering innovation is a lot like mining for treasure.

“Leading a culture for innovation is a lot like mining for gold. Mining for gold involves removing dirt and rocks that lie between the miner and the mother lode. Great innovation leaders know that, just like mining, freedom is already present in the employee," says Bell. "It is not something to be added; it is something to be extracted or released. The role of the leader is to remove the barriers preventing employees from using their freedom. It is an exercise in trust. We sometimes mistakenly use the word “empower” like we wrongly use the word “motivate.” Leaders don’t motivate; they create conditions for self-motivation. The same is true for empowerment.

Leading a culture of innovation means fostering non-stop curiosity through leader presence. Author Tex Bender wrote, “You can pretend to care, but you cannot pretend to be there.” Great innovation leaders know that leading from the office is for wimps. Leaders are present. They don’t just lead by wandering around; they lead by staying fully engaged. They don’t just know the facts and figures; they know the stories and struggles. Because they make it their business to do their homework on customers and associates, they can affirm on sight without the benefit of cue cards or staff whispers. They thank customers for their business with sincerity and palpable gratitude. They hold meetings on other’s turf.”

Tip #2: Hire for Culture Fit, Not Just Skills

Taking it a step back, cultures of innovations rely on innovative people. Yes, it's a leader's job to encourage their team to innovate, but it all starts by hiring the right people. Cathryn Lavery, co-founder & CEO of BestSelf Co., says she's been careful to make strategic culture-based hires. As a result, she's built a team that's no stranger to innovation.

"I always recommend hiring based on culture fit and not just on skillset. While skillset is important, if you hire someone with the wrong attitude, it can poison the well for everyone. We ask everyone on our team to complete the Myers Briggs and the Love Languages test and make it available for the whole team to see," says Lavery. "During team retreats, we have done exercises based around the Myers Briggs personality test to help teammates better understand each other. For example, how introverts and extroverts show up.

Create your core values to help guide your business. You can see the BestSelf core values here, which include default to action, assume positive intent, and absolute ownership, to name a few. As a team and business grow, the core values act as guiding principles for the business to make decisions based upon. One of our core values is 'Thrive in Discomfort,' which means always stepping outside your comfort zone so that you expand what's possible both personally and professionally. We focus on continuous learning and personal development, so we’re better than yesterday but not as good as tomorrow. We make an impact with curiosity and choosing courage over comfort.

Finally, I believe that having our employees take on absolute ownership of certain projects helps turn your team into problem solvers and opportunity creators rather than passive individuals. This initiative turns the team into leaders and increases the bandwidth, as everyone is the quarterback for their own zone. When you have more heads thinking and taking action, you create more possibilities and opportunities to problem solve. When something feels stale or bloated, ask yourself whether it needs to be done in this way for a specific reason. We get things done! We don’t wait around for permission, we take the lead and ask the right questions along the way."

Tip #3: Don't Be Afraid to Set Unreasonable Goals

Staying in your comfort zone isn't an option if you want to be innovative. Beyond hiring the right people and giving the freedom and space to be curious, Dan Tran, founder & CEO of Buttercloth, says you have to set stretch goals.

"Encouraging a team to challenge the status quo starts with finding the right people. Will we be able to count on them 24 hours a day? How badly do they really want the job? Is it just a job they’re looking for, or do they want to make a difference in the world? Next, set goals that are unreasonable," he says. "Who wants to be reasonable, anyway? The world is full of reasonable people, so let’s start by being unreasonable. Challenge your team – dare them to take risks to achieve the goal.

If you want to build a team that takes risks, establish the right tone throughout the company. Set an example of courageous behavior and then pardon the inevitable failures with more encouragement.

Celebrate the small wins. Personal victories almost always outweigh monetary rewards, so applaud these wins every chance you get. Show your appreciation at the moment. A hand-written note. A Friday Happy Hour. The possibilities are endless. Rewards don’t have to be expensive, and the simple, fun ones work the best."

Tip #4: Communicate Your Vision to Your Team

You've hired the right people, you've set effective goals, and you're encouraging them to be creative, curious, and inquisitive. But do they understand your overall vision? Are they aware of how their role impacts the company at large? Shep Hyken, Customer Service & Experience Expert and Bestselling Author of Cult of the Customer, says leaders must define what innovation means for their team, and communicate that vision to employees.

“Whatever a company is known for – or wants to be known for - is baked into the culture. It always starts at the top with leadership defining the culture," says Hyken. "This vision must be communicated, and employees must be trained to it. In the case of innovation, employees must be trained to think innovatively, and as important if not more so, be given permission and empowered to take action. Leadership sets the tone. They must act as role models, and their actions will speak even louder than their words. There must be a process to take innovation from idea to reality. In a culture of innovation, where employees are asked to take risks, they must feel safe. Safe to share their thoughts, try out their ideas, and to fail as much as succeed.”

Tip #5: Remember, Change Starts at the Top

As the fourth tip illustrates, leadership plays a critical role in fostering innovation. Betty Rodriguez, People Partner, FitSmallBusiness.com would argue that leadership behavior is the single biggest determining factor in whether a culture is innovative or stagnant.

“As someone who’s been a part of traditional, as well as more progressive organizations, the biggest lesson I’ve learned is simple - change begins at the top," says Rodriguez."While it’s an age-old adage, it nonetheless rings true. People will always look to their leaders for direction. If your leaders encourage innovation and foster an environment of sharing your voice, then people are more likely to contribute.

The ideal way to establish this kind of culture is to begin with a healthy value system based on trust. When trust is integrated into every facet of the business, employees will feel safe to take calculated risks and learn from the results.

Another value that’s critical to team success is 'understand why.' At my current company, we make a point of encouraging everyone to ask questions when they don’t understand something. Teams are asked to introduce new topics, processes, and ideas with “the why” behind it to eliminate confusion from the people receiving the information.

Over time, we’ve found that when people are encouraged to speak up if they don’t understand something, not only do they gain clarity for their work, but they create trust among each other by investing time to make sure they’re all on the same page.

Ultimately, the values of trust and understanding the why foster innovative thinking and idea-sharing, thereby enabling team members to understand each other’s skillsets better.”

Bringing it All Together

Innovative business cultures will be best positioned to compete in today's global, customer-focused economy. Encouraging curiosity and hiring for culture fit are good places to start. And by setting reach goals, demonstrating leadership's commitment to innovation, and finding clear ways to communicate your company's vision, you'll be well on your way to bringing a culture of innovation to life.

Here at 8x8, innovation is a guiding principle. We are tirelessly striving to create better communication technology that allows businesses to adapt and unlock their potential. How can we help you? Let us know!

Erica Marois

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A passionate connector of people, Erica is a customer and employee experience enthusiast who loves helping others find unique solutions to their biggest challenges. She has 12+ years of experience in content creation and community building and volunteers as a facilitator for CX Accelerator. Erica works from home in Richmond, VA, where she lives with her husband and their lab-mix, Quinn. Outside of work, she loves cooking, traveling [...] Read More >

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