When companies foster a culture of innovation, it drives their bottom line while creating a favorable work environment for employees. Within an innovation culture, experimentation is encouraged, and failure is not seen as something inherently bad. The environments created at companies steeped in innovation encourage collaboration and provide psychological safety.
Yet, despite these desirable features and their positive impact on success, innovation culture is notoriously difficult to create and sustain. A major reason that companies struggle to create this type of culture is that they do not balance out the fun aspects of it with the proper accountability. The fun needs a counterbalance to keep employees grounded.
The following are some of the tougher aspects of innovation culture that are necessary to make it work.
- A high standard of discipline
Innovation culture necessitates a willingness to experiment, but this also requires a great deal of discipline. Companies that have fostered this culture accept they do not have all the answers and experiment to try to find them. This experimentation is ultimately meant to produce knowledge rather than a market-ready product.
Creating knowledge means acting with discipline. Experiments cannot be designed haphazardly. Rather, they need to be informed by the work that has come before with clearly defined parameters for advancing knowledge within a particular area. Discipline also means abandoning experiments that are not achieving the desired results. Discipline is what makes experimentation possible because it identifies specific goals for the exploration process and avoids wasting time and resources on pointless questions or experiments that are not informative.
- An intolerance for incompetence
Because of the nature of innovation, companies developing this type of culture need to be comfortable with failure. However, that does not mean they need to accept failure that is the result of incompetence. In fact, companies known for their innovation recruit the highest performers in their field and set extremely lofty standards.
Moreover, these companies track performance and either let go of people not hitting their goals or transition them into other roles that are better-suited to their skills. The bottom line is that failure resulting from incompetence does not have a lot of valuable lessons to teach. On the other hand, failures resulting from the best effort of someone with a remarkable track record and impeccable attention to detail are much more valuable. In the end, incompetence destroys the value inherent in tolerating failure.
- A strong team of leaders
Companies with an innovation culture tend to be flat rather than hierarchical. This means that employees at all levels have significant autonomy when it comes to completing their work. All employees are encouraged to voice an opinion and participate in the larger conversation. Such a structure allows companies to be more agile in adapting to changes since the people most capable of driving adaptive changes can take the reins. Moreover, a flat structure tends to produce a larger array of ideas and opinions since it taps into a much larger pool of minds. At the same time, a lack of hierarchy does not correlate with a lack of leadership. Flat companies need even stronger leadership to set strategic priorities and direction for the future. Without this guidance, there would be chaos.
- An emphasis on honesty
Psychological safety is especially important for innovation. For an innovation culture to thrive, people need to feel that they can speak up and question or criticize openly without fear of retribution. This is precisely how good ideas become great ones. At the same time, this openness to criticism is a two-way street. Employees need to be candid with each other when they discuss projects, and someone who criticizes must be equally willing to accept critique. Within an innovation culture, there is a high degree of accountability, but this only gets tested when candor is the norm. Criticism should be sharp, with the understanding that the goal is not to jab at each other but to make projects as solid as they can be. When people start to get too polite, critical feedback gets lost.
- A sense of individual accountability
Collaboration fuels innovation. Companies with successful innovation cultures have employees who continually consult with the people around them as they work on a project. However, it is important not to let collaboration transform into consensus. With collaboration, people can weigh in on a problem, but one person has the ultimate responsibility for making a decision and owning the consequences. While consensus sounds like a good idea, it slows down decision-making and can cause the most competent voices to be drowned out by other opinions. For innovation culture to be sustained, a single person needs to be accountable for each decision while feeling free to ask for individual opinions. With individual accountability, employees must be strategic about their collaboration, which, in turn, drives efficiency.