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Building an Innovation Culture: Intentional Actions for Success

November 14, 2023

As companies continue to strive for growth and success, they realize the importance of innovation in maintaining a competitive edge. However, building an innovation culture is not a simple process. It requires more than just brainstorming sessions and a willingness to listen to new ideas. Culture is a complex and subtle entity that must be intentionally constructed to support a company's innovation goals.

Brainstorming may seem like a simple and effective method for cultivating innovation, but it is not. Often, brainstorming can be influenced by group conformity or the highest-paid person in the room. Therefore, a culture of innovation must rely on more than just brainstorming. Building a culture requires a conscious effort to surround the organization with an ecosystem that enables, encourages, sustains, and celebrates the desired culture. The ecosystem must provide structure and processes to develop and manage a consistent innovation pipeline.

The innovation ecosystem offers the space and time necessary to develop new ideas continuously. An innovation ecosystem attracts diverse talent and thought, emphasizing the need for diversity in thinking and perspective. Encouraging and embracing diversity can lead to more creative solutions. Innovation also develops an innovative image that attracts partners. Finally, innovation must be pursued through research and development processes that explore the unknown. These include ideation, prototyping, testing, and implementation.

Culture is influenced by many factors, including the organization's hierarchy and department-specific subcultures. An innovation culture cannot exist if only specific departments or individuals embrace innovation. Therefore, the entire organization must be committed to the innovation culture and have a sense of ownership over it. To achieve this, it is essential to develop and maintain open communication channels throughout the organization, facilitating the sharing of ideas and collaboration.

Cultures are not easy to change. Therefore, building an innovation culture requires intentional actions that support and encourage the desired culture. Lessons learned from established innovation labs, particularly at universities and corporations, provide valuable insights into the steps needed to build a successful innovation culture. An innovation lab provides a physical space for research and development, which can play an integral role in spurring innovation.

When tasked with establishing an R&D Lab and fostering an innovation ecosystem, I sought wisdom from those who have embarked on similar endeavors. A wealth of knowledge exists regarding the establishment of innovation labs at universities, corporations, and even retailers such as Walmart, Amazon, Target, and Tesco. Additionally, esteemed publications like Deloitte, HBR, McKinsey, E&Y, and Gartner have shared valuable insights on the subject. By delving into the vast pool of available information and actively engaging in R&D Lab practices, I have come to believe that the following elements are crucial for cultivating and nurturing a culture of innovation.

The first step is to address what is holding you back from innovating. I've heard many different reasons, for example: innovation involves change, which always comes with some risk. If someone makes a change and it doesn't go well, they need to be able to recover, which can lead to increased costs, time, stress, and reputational impact. Within IT organizations, projects are driven by definable outcomes, schedules, and costs, so embarking on an innovation experiment with an unknown outcome may seem counterintuitive. Business cultures are often constrained by norms that are assumed to be unchangeable, creating a challenging headwind to overcome. There's also the misconception that innovations are grand, unexpected, tumultuous epiphanies that require great intelligence and creativity.

The next step is to cultivate an ecosystem of innovation through a deliberate set of activities, including:

🚀 Carve out dedicated time and space for innovation by creating a separate team and process from daily operations. Establish an innovation center or R&D lab as a physical space where uninterrupted time is allocated. Without this separation, the demands of daily operations can divert resources away from innovation.

🔍 Implement a pipeline and portfolio management process to track, filter, experiment, evangelize, and transfer innovations. This process should include a structured test planning approach to assess viability early on and establish checkpoints to determine when to pivot and move on to the next idea.

🌍 Foster diversity of thought by proactively engaging with other companies, universities, government institutions, and non-profit organizations. Echo chambers can stifle innovation, so it's crucial to seek out different perspectives and ideas.

🤝 Embrace diversity of talent by involving professionals from various disciplines to tackle the same problem. This opens doors to fresh approaches and ideas.

🎤 Project an innovative image. Break the perception barrier by showcasing the technical prowess and innovation within your industry. Public speaking, writing articles, creating showcases, and networking are vital skills. Establishing a demo lab, such as at the 1819 Innovation Hub, allows potential partners to witness ongoing innovations, expand their view of what's possible, and helps create an innovation identity.

📚 Foster a culture of continuous learning. In today's economy, learning is key. Embed a learning curriculum within your team to promote ongoing growth and development.

🔮 Invest in trend spotting and technology outlook. Anticipating the future landscape of your environment and industry 3-5 years ahead is crucial. Aim to leap ahead instead of playing catch-up with the competition.

These intentional activities will fuel an innovation culture while delivering meaningful results. Establishing internal and external partnerships and effective ways of working are essential. Clearly define your role, communicate how you will act, and consistently follow through on your commitments. Let the spirit of innovation guide your journey!

In conclusion, building an innovation culture requires more than just a willingness to listen to new ideas. It requires a conscious and intentional effort to create an ecosystem that enables, encourages, sustains, and celebrates the desired culture of innovation. An innovation ecosystem must provide the structure and processes to manage a consistent innovation pipeline while embracing diversity in thought and talent. Communication throughout the organization is vital to developing an innovation culture throughout the entire company. Learning from established innovation labs at universities and corporations provides valuable insights that can help any organization develop a successful innovation ecosystem and culture.

About the Author:

Dan Whitacre focused on innovation and transforming Kroger’s enterprise approaches to data and analytics architecture, technology strategies and practices as well as its disruption roadmap. He served as the CTO and Vice President of Business Development for a technology services organization and spent six years consulting at IBM on Information and analytics strategy and architecture. Dan recently retired as the Senior Director of R&D and Technology Transformation where he led the internal lab ecosystem as well as University Labs at the University of Cincinnati 1819 Innovation Hub and the Northern Kentucky University's Innovation Gallery.