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4 Steps for Creating a Culture of Innovation

While many CEO’s focus on addressing organizational problems, the most successful focus on raising the bar. One of the ways they look to raise the bar is by creating a culture where innovation thrives. When this organizational strength is magnified it can become a source of competitive advantage for the enterprise.

Unfortunately, too often, when it comes to innovation, too many organizational leaders take innovation on themselves and believe that they need to be the person who generates the innovative ideas. That’s not the case when building organizational capability.

A Fortune 50 technology organization, wanted to identify those senior leaders who were evaluated to be the most innovative in the organizations they led. Through interviews and meetings, there was only modest discussion about brainstorming, generating ideas, prototyping, and the like—the kind of things most of us think about when we consider institutionalizing innovation. Instead, what emerged were excellent practices for leadership of any kind. My one sentence conclusion for the CEO who wants a more innovative organization is this: Excellence in leading innovation has far less to do with the leader having innovative ideas; it has everything to do with how that leader creates a culture where innovation and creativity thrives in every corner. Here are a few examples:

A culture that supports innovation from all levels

A consumer promotions agency that relies on creative ideas to support their client’s objectives has set aside a physical area known as the innovation center. They use the area frequently for brainstorming and visioning for product launches and consumer campaigns. In the innovation center participation is encouraged from everyone and the underlying philosophy is that great ideas can come from anyone, not just a managing director or the president of the agency. The focus is always on the outcomes that a given idea may produce for a client. The environment is set up with couches, interesting décor, and plenty of flipcharts to capture the ideas that are inspired by everyone involved with projects.

A focus on outcomes

A telecommunications company was facing a problem in the billing department that dealt with customer dissatisfaction because of blind transfers. The President of the division knew this had to stop for both the sake of efficiency and customer service, but she didn’t precisely have the answer to the issue. She created a task force to create a solution to the problem and the many unintended consequences that arose from blind transfers. When interviewed, one of the members of the task force said this about the president; “She painted a clear picture of the destination and then we all worked together to figure out the best way to get there.”

The president did not have the solution to the issue, which turned out to be a series of simple but non-obvious decisions that needed to be made in order to fix the problem. But she did have a vision of what success looked like and kept the task force focused on those issues as they worked backward to solve the problem.

So if that is the conclusion, then what are the things that leaders must do, short of having the single breathtaking idea or discovering the wheel, that foster innovation? Here are four strategies that make a profound difference.

1. They focus exclusively on outcomes

Senior executives put a great deal of effort into clearly envisioning and talking about the outcomes in a given scenario, rather than directing how those outcomes would be achieved. They did not micromanage, nor did they abdicate. Rather they painted a picture of the future and held their teams accountable for how to get there. By focusing on outcomes and results these leaders free up a lot of energy for the creative process of making it happen.

2. They develop reciprocal trust

Not the garden varieties of trust, but complete and shared confidence in one another. I use the term “reciprocal trust” in these instances because it was very clear that this was not simply confidence that someone could be counted on to do a good job–there was a much more palpable sense of trust that permeated the relationships. Direct reports and close colleagues often described their leaders as protectors and I frequently heard the comment, “he/she covered my back.”

3. They are inspiring

“For innovation to exist you have to feel inspired!” said one person. Based on the research in the book I co-authored, The Inspiring Leader, (McGraw Hill 2009) I was not shocked to hear so many comments related to this topic, because most of the data indicate that no other leadership competency influences productivity and engagement more profoundly. Similarly, when people feel inspired by a leader they are more inclined to give more effort and go the extra mile on a project. That extra effort and commitment is often what produces innovation.

4. They get buy in to stretch goals

If the goal is easy to achieve, there is not much need to innovate. Another trend that I observed was that these leaders set stretch goals that were very difficult to achieve. Moreover, they were able to get members of their team bought in to the power of achieving those goals. The goals set within these innovative groups required entirely new approaches in order for the goal to be achieved. The combination of need to innovate and commitment to the goal fueled the innovation for these teams

So the next time you are wracking your brain doing everything you can to come up with the idea that will save the day, the innovative solution to your problems, or just a better way to do something, put your efforts into doing the things that foster and promote innovation within your organization. If you do that then you will be creating a culture where innovation thrives which is exponentially more valuable than you as the CEO saving the day with a single great idea. Then who knows where your next great idea will come from?

Scott K. Edinger ( is a consultant, author, speaker and executive coach who has worked with a number of prominent organizations in the world including AT&T, Harvard Business Publishing, Bank of America, Lenovo, Gannett and The Los Angeles Times. You can follow him on Twitter @ScottKEdinger.




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