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On my flight back from Rochester the other night after delivering a workshop to a group of CEOs, I was reading a fascinating article titled "Culture in Action" by Ann Swidler. In it I read the following quote:

"Culture does not unify action to pursue a common set of goals. It’s more like a ‘tool kit’ or repertoire that people choose from to pursue various goals."

This perspective, I believe, transforms what innovation means. It clearly explains what I have been struggling to grasp for nearly ten years: that innovative companies are not innovative just in the area of their products and services, but they are innovative in everything they do!

What the article proposes is that the best way to build a culture of innovation is to provide a tool kit of strategies that will help people create innovative ideas and directions. Companies shouldn’t just say that innovation and creativity are important company values, but rather, they should provide ways and tools for individuals to create their own innovative strategies.

So what’s in this tool kit? I’ll tell you – the innovation patterns that I keep referring to in this blog. Over the last decade I have written three books based on my research of the underlying patterns of competitiveness – The Art of the Advantage, Hide a Dagger Behind a Smile, and The Way of Innovation.

By identifying mental patterns applied by great military strategists – from Sun Tzu to John Boyd – I have been able to teach people and companies how to use these patterns to see new and effective tactics. These patterns offer new behaviors and outlooks that individuals can add to their repertoires. By using a tool kit, people may then find themselves being innovative everywhere.

Build a culture of innovation
Most of the social advances over the past two decades have not come from new science (though new medicines have saved millions of lives), but rather from innovative advances in how these sciences reach poorer segments of society. Consider the Gates Foundation as an example. Its greatest achievements so far have not been so much from advancing science, but instead from making existing medicines available to the poor.

Southwest Airlines is another innovative company to examine. Southwest’s management took an innovative approach to the everyday job of cleaning, fueling and preparing a plane to get back into the air. Due to their approach, Southwest can turn around a plane in 15 minutes while its competitors take 30 minutes.

Like Southwest, Urban Outfitters encourages innovative behavior in everything it does – from how clothes are stacked to greeting customers. These companies didn’t paste "think innovatively" signs or posters on the back office walls. Instead they find, teach and retain personnel whose repertoires include a broad set of innovative patterns to solve problems.

Several of my clients talk about wanting to build a culture of innovation. That is one of the reasons I started the Kai Method Innovation Seminar series. These one-day workshops provide a standardized approach for crafting innovative strategies and real-world solutions. People who attend aren’t looking for continuing education credits, but instead are searching for ways to truly tap into their internal innovation.

If Swidler’s article is right, then the way to create a culture of innovation is to provide a company’s staff with an advanced mental tool kit filled with new stories, examples, patterns and programs that enable them to approach every challenge – big and small – creatively.

You don't have to limit your innovative thinking to cool new products and services. You know, the stuff the media seems to exclusively focus on when they discuss "innovation."  Instead, ask yourself the questions below to see if you can build a better tool kit for yourself and your business.
1. What is in MY tool kit?
2. What stories or patterns have I identified within my industry or business?
3. What examples of innovative behavior can I share with my company?
4. How can I unlock new patterns for myself and my employees?