Leadership Insights

Building a Culture of Innovation

Culture of Innovation

Our team at The Conversations That Matter has been working on a custom tool for an exciting client. The tool is focused on what it takes to have an innovative culture. I could get buried in the amazing content that has already been written on this very topic. It’s fascinating.

There is one key to creating an innovation culture that comes up time and time again. It appears to be the magic bullet that makes all the difference.

Companies with an innovation culture aren’t afraid of failure. It’s that simple. They embrace risk-taking for the sake of innovation. From the senior leaders to top talent to the hourly employees, each team member understands that failure is expected and is a sign that innovation is happening.

Building an innovation culture without fear of failure

How can we go about creating an innovation culture if we fear failure? As long as we worry about our job security, our standing amongst our peers, and the impression we make on our supervisors, we will never be brave enough to name new ideas or step up to lead in a new way.

We have to build cultures of trust, cooperation, playfulness, and celebration for the seeds of innovation to grow.  We must create connections between employees, foster cultural change, and be bold enough to fail.

Having an innovation culture isn’t for everyone. When company leadership is filled with egos, a culture of innovation is bound to fall short. If creating an innovation culture is the last-ditch effort to retain talent or save the bottom line, it’s likely too late.

Before your organization decides to dive headfirst into designing an innovation culture, really look at whether or not you are ready. First, you need to set everyone up for success.

Consider gathering your leadership and work through these questions:

  • Why is innovation important?

  • What mindset would a leader need to have to lead or inspire innovation?

  • What is required for a team to be innovative?

  • How and where does your business model currently encourage innovation? Where is it currently present?

  • What do you need more of to be an innovation-centric business? Where is innovation currently missing?

  • How would you benefit from taking more risks?

  • What do you want to say about your organization’s work in innovation three years from now? How are you going to get there?

Being an organization with a strong innovation culture requires planning, ownership from the top leadership, and an understanding that it will take time and a lot of trial and error.

Psychological Safety

Employees’ psychological safety means they can share ideas freely, without fear of repercussions like humiliation, mockery, or punishment. This type of safety is rare and takes time to build the trust required for team members to believe they are safe. For psychological safety to work, it has to start with the leaders.

Besides being vulnerable themselves, leaders also need to shut down any behavior that would prevent others from being vulnerable. Again, I don’t want to underestimate how hard this is. It takes time.

Fail Fast, Fail Often

Creating an innovation culture means failing fast and failing often. This can be a tough pill to swallow for an organization that doesn’t typically tolerate failure. So again – practice failure in a safe setting. Name a risky idea and model what disappointment looks like when the idea falls flat. Show that even leaders fail and that it’s part of being innovative. Strive for progress, not perfection.

I learned this important lesson while working for a fast-growth technology company.  We had an opportunity to be a market-leader and in order to beat the competition, we needed to innovate quickly – agile sprint style – and release it to our customers. We didn’t always succeed and several times, we failed – BIG – right in front of our customers.  While that never felt great, we learned a ton as a team – how much we could push, how to adjust our pace and how to involve our customers early to inform and produce the best product.  What really happened was the emergence of taking what worked in one failed product and bringing it forward to create an even better product.  Ultimately, it led to world-class innovation that is now impacting over a million people every year.  I’m convinced we wouldn’t have ever been able to achieve this had we not had permission to fail and fail fast. It became a mantra that made us cringe and allowed us to succeed.

Break Apart the Hierarchy, at Least Sometimes

There may always be a need for hierarchy at an organizational level. We can save that topic for another post, but I do believe that in order for new technologies, new ideas, new thinking, and new possibilities to arise, there are times when hierarchy needs to be set aside.

Imagine trying to solve a problem when the only people who felt empowered to share ideas were those in senior leadership. Others were worried about hurting their egos, overstepping, or making a bad impression. It isn’t hard to see how stifling this would be.

On the other hand, imagine cross-departmental teams gathering for innovation labs where everyone was encouraged to develop ideas, offer new perspectives, bypass barriers previously set, and create amazing new ideas. What might be possible?

Encourage the Unreasonable

I love the question, “What might happen if we succeed?”

If we only ever look for the reasons not to do something, we will only ever do what we’ve always done.

Or, “What might be possible?”

“What if?”  “Why not?”

Creativity and innovation are born when people feel safe and they can simply be themselves. . They thrive when employees share big, great ideas, energy is formed around those ideas, and conventional wisdom is thrown out the window. An idea factory is born when everyone feels safe enough to dream.

Invite the Outside In

Top management knows those good ideas don’t always come from within.

Innovation culture is often fed by outside perspectives and a diverse array of ideas. Creative people find their inspiration from sources all around them. Get outside. Literally. Seek to learn about innovation from other industries – completely unrelated to yours to inform how you might see a connection to a breakthrough in your business.

In the book Range, by David Epstein, the author tells us that those who are most successful in their niche profession are those who can see multiple perspectives from a vast array of life experiences. They can see different ways of doing things because they don’t believe in the impossible.

Now What?

If your organization wants to build a culture of innovation, but you don’t know where to start, let’s talk.


And, be sure to join us for an upcoming webinar where we will explore the tools, programs and solutions we offer to help teams that need a solid foundation before they can fully engage in innovation, risk-taking and being vulnerable.