How to Create a Culture of Innovation

by Sumit Roy [see Sumit’s profile here]

We are all born creative.

Then we get educated. 

Some of us manage to survive our education and remain children. We stay at our creative best. Curious. Perennially exploring. Always finding new and amazing things

in a perpetually wondrous world. It's a mindset I call "Being Alice".

Every adult can "be Alice".

When we were born, we were gifted with an amazing computer. A living organism that can connect dots in the most incredible ways.

But pretty soon our parents and our teachers start formatting that living computer with rituals and practices that get us to think instinctively in set ways. So, though as mammals, we came with the knowledge of how to swim, that knowledge was deprogrammed from us when we were told not to go near large bodies of water, lest we drown.

Because the elephant mother never tells her calf this, every elephant can swim.

And just as humans can be taught to take away their fear of swimming, they can also be taught to take away their fear of ideas.

There is another essential trait that makes the culture of an organisation truly innovative. It's the ability to inspire a team to get the job done.

Fortunately, we were not just born curious. We were also all born with the ability to make things a game. I call this mindset "Being Tom".

If the fence has to be painted you invent a fun way to get it done.

Every adult has an "inner Tom".

So how exactly does one tap into the "inner Alice" and the "inner Tom" we were all born with? 

Here's my recipe.

Let's start with an obvious emotional truth.

The biggest block to ideas, is the fear of what others might think of the idea.

And so we have the same situation repeated across boardrooms across the world. When a boss asks us to come up with ideas, we'd rather not be the first to suggest one.

We wait for others to fail first. So that we get to know what kind of ideas are acceptable and what are not.

Or, we try second guessing what the boss is expecting. And we try to trot out ideas along the lines of those that have been accepted earlier.

We soon tire ourselves out, fearing failure.

Here, then, are a few thumb rules of how to create an atmosphere where your colleagues can use the 90% of their brain that is lying unused because it deals with the so-far-unexplored.

1. There are no wrong ideas. Establish this simple rule. People are only allowed to criticise an idea if they are able to come up with two better ideas. This rule must apply to the head of the organisation as well. Not just the team boss.

No one may say no to an idea. If you don't like it, you have to provide two better solutions. You can't reject any idea. Even through body language. 

•    Here's a fun way to make that work.

Keep a "party jar".  Anyone who says no to an idea, without providing two better ideas, has to donate $10 towards a party for the working group.

2. The credit for the idea goes to the people who implement the idea. Not the originator of the idea. Now you'll suddenly have a team of people who will recognize the best idea and want to own it. 

The first rule ensures that you have a plethora of ideas.

The second rule ensures that the best ones, the ones that take the least effort for the most results, the ideas that look the most fun, get implemented.

By the way, there's nothing stopping the originator of the idea being part of the team that implements the idea. And thus getting credit. Now even a "Tom" joins in on painting the fence.

In any case, when there's truly innovative teamwork happening, it's very difficult to establish who really generated the idea.

Wasn't it the person who instigated two better ideas by first providing an unworkable idea?

•    Here's an easy way of making this work.

Include new ideas implemented in every annual review. Where the reviewee mentions the people who contributed to the implementation of the idea. They are not allowed to put their own name first.The number of times the same names get mentioned for a particular idea will tell you who really contributed. Ensures that a team adopts the idea. Takes out the ones in the team who took a free ride.

3. Reward failure. As long as the team can identify the lessons learnt, give it the same status in the annual review as a successfully implemented idea. 

Seems counter-intuitive. But if you remember how you learnt to ride a bicycle, you'll know how important it is to fail. Just don't reward ignoring a lesson learnt. Don't reward a repeat of the same mistake.

4. Learn to headline a problem or a challenge. Most problems, or challenges, are so poorly defined that they can't be solved. Yet, a challenge well-defined is half-solved.

Most of you will have heard of a SMART objective. I have a slightly different take on that acronym. 

Make your objective Sustainable (not just for your business, but for the world), Measurable, (define) Allowable Cost, (make it) Reviewable and Timebound. 

I also ask for the SMART objective to be not more than two tweets longs. (280 characters. The shorter, the better.)

SMART objectives not only make it easier to come up with ideas, it makes it easy to know which ideas were successfully implemented. 

It also makes it easy to identify where the implementation went wrong, if it did. 

In an iterative way, it makes the ability to define SMART objectives, for the company as a whole, better. An essential skill for creating a culture of innovation. One fueled by failure and success.

5. Be sure of the business you are really in. Most businesses still don't know the difference between product and brand.

They think they are in the photography business. When they should have known that they are in the "memories" business.

If Kodak knew that, they would have added a sim card to their camera long ago. They probably would be worth billions had they created a shareable website called "Kodak Moments" well before Instagram came about. Instead they were counting the number of patents they had on films and cameras. 

How you count the number of ideas your business creates often defines how innovative you are. 

Soon the celebrations become contagious.

Here's a quick summary.

Be sure of your brand's cause. Make SMART objectives a practice. Then take away the fear of failure and watch how innovative your organisation becomes.

There, you can tweet that. 

Better still share your recipe for an innovative organisation? Happy to learn.