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How To

Create a culture of innovation in your organization

November 25, 2013

While innovation is now one of those words that everyone uses, but doesn't fully understand, it is irrefutable that having innovation as a strategy is closely linked to accelerated growth and profitability. Even if you are a nonprofit, innovation will lead to greater sustainability and increase your ability to achieve your mission and goals.

What does innovation mean in this context? It is the creation of new ideas for products, services, processes, business models and marketing approaches. More importantly, innovation implies that the ideas are actually brought to fruition, either in the marketplace or the organization. So innovation is more than just creativity — it implies that ideas are edited, refined, polished and produced.

However, research also shows that having the intention of being innovative must be supported by a culture of innovation. Examples abound of organizations where innovation is preached, but new ideas are killed on a regular basis from neglect, sabotage or hostility from those with a stake in the status quo.


Three elements are required to have a culture of innovation. In the words of innovation expert Doug Hall, these are: "I don't know, I need help, I fail a lot."

  • I don't know means it is important to be open to new information, especially information that is outside your organization. Most creative ideas come from the fringes of a body of knowledge. Sometimes important insights come from another field, or from outside your industry. Therefore, it is critical that your people be encouraged to say, "I don't know," and seek expertise from outside. The sourcing of intellectual property from others is part of this discipline.
  • I need help is another way of saying that diversity in thought is extremely critical. The perspective of an outsider, whether it's a person in your organization who is younger, older, from a different culture or with a different educational background than the management team, can be refreshingly helpful. Similarly, travel and collaboration are ways to get insight and help.
  • I fail a lot is the most difficult piece of an innovative culture. Our educational system only rewards us for doing things right; it doesn't reward us for trying new things. Yet it is only through trying and being willing to fail that we can learn. Russell Ackoff of the Wharton School notes that organizations fail or decline more frequently because of what they "did not do" rather than what they "did do."
  • This is not an argument for blind experimentation. Rather, become expert at the vocabulary of your industry and experiment in a logical way, trying to overcome specific concerns or obstacles to your idea by trying out small pieces of the concept. Like jazz musicians and comedians, improvise in a framework of deep knowledge.
  • Encouraging and allowing the discipline of "I don't know, I need help, I fail a lot" is the first step. Research into creativity suggests that adding two other elements to your culture will have payoffs as well.
  • Allow time to reflect. Creativity is greatly enhanced when individuals get a chance to reflect and respond to the stimulus they have gathered from the preceding steps. Take a walk, play a game, sleep on it. All of these are tactics that allow your brain to process new information. Create a physical environment that encourages interactions (increases diversity) and also makes room for contemplation.
  • Let innovations mature. Innovations do not emerge complete. They need refinement, editing, testing and improvements. Use a system for innovation that allows for the maturation of ideas in a regular, measured and open process that makes sure ideas are killed for the right reasons, not from neglect or prejudice.

Research suggests that companies that don't replace at least 10% of their products and services every year will die by the end of five years. Think about how to change your culture to be more receptive to innovation.

Catherine S. Renault is principal and owner of Innovation Policyworks in Brunswick. She can be reached at crenault@innovationpolicyworks.com.