How to Create a Culture of Innovation to Build a Sustainable Business

(Article updated 5-13-21)

A CEO I worked with earlier in my career would often say, “If you keep doing the same things, you’ll always get the same results.” This statement always resonated with me.

Companies that remain stagnant and fail to innovate are ultimately not sustainable. The competition will always be on the lookout for that “next big thing” that will set them up to increase their market share and push other businesses (like yours) out of the market.

This is why it’s so critical for businesses to always be looking for new ways to do things, opportunities to enhance their products or services, and new ideas to bring additional products to the market to add more value for their customers.

What is innovation?

Innovation is a word that’s tossed around by a lot of businesses. But, those businesses often fail to use the term correctly. True innovation means really creating new processes that lead to real improvements or actually creating altogether new products and services that have a seriously positive impact and change the market – or the world.

Innovation is not improving your customer service by bringing in chatbots on your website. The creation of chatbots…that was innovation. You using them to improve customer service is NOT. But lots of businesses look at any kind of improvement in their operations or products as innovation. That’s simply not true.

What happens if you fail to innovate?

Think Nokia. In the late 1990’s, Nokia was the leading mobile phone company, bringing in nearly $4 billion in profit. The company had a firm grip on the mobile phone market, but ultimately lack of innovation crushed any momentum. As smartphones entered the mobile world, Nokia failed to innovate and continued to focus on its low-cost flip phones and other unintelligent devices.

Image: Nokia phones when iPhone first entered the market

You know the rest of the story. If you haven’t heard it, just take out your iPhone and use your unlimited data to look it up. Nokia failed to innovate while companies like Apple brought data into the mix, and that spelled out Nokia’s doom.

How do you build a culture of innovation?

Companies that want to succeed need to stay on top of trends and always be looking for new ways to add value in the market. Data was the game-changer in the mobile phone market, but there are innovative changes occurring constantly across all industries.

Maybe it’s a manufacturing process that helps a particular company produce widgets 75% more efficiently than its competitors, or maybe it’s a flying car (if it’s the latter, sign me up).

Whatever the case may be, the companies that think ahead and plan for the future are the ones that stay on top and build a sustainable business. Let’s look at a few ways you can create a culture of innovation in your company to enable your business to stay at the top of the food chain.

Take a organization-wide approach to innovation

As the head of an organization, you may have an instinct to make all the innovation decisions on your own. That, however, would be a mistake.

Innovation should be built into your company culture – from the very bottom, all the way to the top. Empower your employees to bring innovative ideas to the table, and reward your team members when those ideas pan out.

You’d be amazed how many great ideas are just sitting there undiscovered simply because the person holding onto them didn’t feel like they’d be taken seriously if they brought them to the leadership team.

Make sure you communicate with everyone in your organization that each and every employee is part of the company’s success. Let them know you value their ideas. You’ll be amazed what you can find.

Look at failure from a different perspective

Failure is a part of business. Unfortunately, there are companies that send their talented employees packing even at one small mistake. This, in itself, is a mistake.

Instead, you need to embrace failure and look at it as a learning experience. As the famous Albert Einstein saying goes, “I have not failed, I have just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”

Albert Einstein Failure Quote
Image: Albert Einstein Failure Quote – Source

Each time you fail, you get closer to finding a successful, new way to do something, or you get closer to inventing a new product or solution. If you punish your team any time they fail, they’ll eventually develop a fear of risk taking, and risk taking is an essential element of business success.

Look for gaps in your operations and technology

Never settle for the way things are done. This attitude will get you nowhere. Unfortunately, there are lots of executives who prefer “the way things have always been done.”

Instead, you need to focus on where the gaps are in your operations as well as what’s missing with regard to the technology you are using to run your business.

This may lead to incremental updates and changes that can slowly improve your business, but it can also lead to huge discoveries that can not only improve your business but seriously improve your industry (or the world) as a whole.

Create a team environment

When your team is able to work together and get to know one another on a deeper level, they will work harder to improve the workplace and grow the business because they are invested in one another’s success.

You can do this by creating collaborative teams, hosting regular team building events, and setting aside time for innovation. Set up a creative space and allow teams to meet there once each week (maybe for 2-3 hours for each weekly session) to brainstorm and explore their innovative ideas.

collaborative workspace for innovation
Image: Collaborative workspace for innovation – Source

A common space can make your team feel like they are a part of something bigger, which will make them want to work toward the big picture. It will create an exciting, engaged environment, which opens things up to innovative ideas.

Be transparent with business decisions

Lots of business leaders make it a practice to keep major business decisions behind the scenes. While there are many business decisions that should be made behind the scenes, there are a lot of decisions that impact your employees’ lives, and being transparent about those decisions can build trust and keep your team invested in the company mission.

Trust is a key factor in building a culture of innovation. As your team becomes more and more invested in the company’s success, they will be more likely to bring ideas to the table that lead to innovation.

If you always hide major decisions, that can make your team question your leadership and your motivations. Those decisions will always be found out, and if they end up negatively impacting the organization, it can hurt morale and send your most talented team members heading for the door. When that happens, innovation fails.

Why is business innovation so important?

In today’s business climate, change is the norm. Things move so quickly, like changes in technology, regulations, business strategies, and virtually everything else related to running a business.

If you aren’t constantly on the look out for ways to create innovative products or implement innovative changes, the competition is poised to leap over you.

To avoid falling victim and falling behind, take the above considerations into account to build innovation into your business culture. Get your full team on board and make sure you clearly and consistently communicate your mission to be innovative.

Don’t be the next Nokia. Instead, look to companies like Tesla, Apple and others for inspiration. If you do, your business will thrive, and the world will be a better place for your innovative efforts.

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