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How to build a culture of innovation

If you truly want innovation, you cannot expect it to just happen, especially in the face of resistance.

How to build a culture of innovation
[REDPIXEL / Adobe Stock]

For decades, all high jumpers cleared the bar using similar techniques. In many ways, the sport was stuck in a rut. Then a 16-year-old high jumper, Dick Fosbury, decided to try something new. He went headfirst and backwards over the bar—what became known as the Fosbury Flop.

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Initially, Fosbury’s coaches, both in high school and college, pushed him toward the traditional methods. But the results of the Flop spoke for themselves, and as Fosbury broke record after record, his coaches had to relent.

In the 1968 Olympics, using his signature Flop, Fosbury took gold and set a new Olympic record.

Business leaders love stories of innovation like this one. Yet more often than not, rather than encourage innovators like Fosbury, they act like his coaches. They resist innovation until they can no longer deny its potential.

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If you truly want innovation, you cannot expect it to just happen, especially in the face of resistance. You must create an environment that lets it thrive. You must build a culture of innovation. Here’s how.

CREATE A DAY-AFTER-TOMORROW MINDSET

To innovate, you must get out of the habit of thinking solely about today and develop the capacity to plan for the day after tomorrow. If all you think about is in-year revenue, you will always be stuck in the past. You must shift your focus to future-proofing your organization.

We live in a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world. Your success depends on your ability to adapt quickly. The Fosbury Flop was, in fact, an adaptation. Before, jumpers landed on hard surfaces so they had to land carefully, typically on their feet. Then deep foam padding was introduced, opening up new possibilities.

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The first time Fosbury tried out his Flop, do you think it was more effective than the traditional techniques? Doubtful. But Fosbury wasn’t thinking about today’s results; he was thinking about what he could accomplish in the future if he adapted to the new environment and perfected this technique.

It takes time to reap the rewards of innovation. You must begin investing in the future now. Then, when you’re hit with a VUCA reality—like the COVID-19 pandemic—your investment will pay off.

HIRE WELL

To future-proof your organization, a top priority should be investing in your people. Culture is largely a reflection of your people, so if you want a culture of innovation, you need to hire innovators.

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Some people are naturally suited to innovation because of the way their brains work. We call these people Catalysts. A Catalyst is someone who:

• Constantly takes in information at lightning speed, often subconsciously.

• Connects all the dots, seeing a clear vision for a better future.

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• Is driven to make positive change.

People like this are your VUCA-ready employees. They’re people like Dick Fosbury, who deeply understand changes in their environment, can envision a better approach, and then put in the work to achieve it. They have a gift for staying one step ahead of coming changes, and when they’re hit with the unexpected, they adapt quickly.

Your game-changers can’t just be visionaries, though. As innovative as a single person might be, they will need a team to create impactful change. So when hiring, in addition to looking for Catalyst traits, look for skills of influencing and bringing others together.

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REARCHITECT YOUR ORGANIZATION

You can hire all the right people, but if you place them in a non-innovative work environment, you’ll stunt their results. You need work processes and structures that support innovative thought. That may require rearchitecting the organization.

Many corporate structures rely on hierarchy, which can lead to working in silos and sticking to the status quo, both of which can hinder innovation. Consider moving away from command-and-control hierarchies and moving toward a greater reliance on autonomy and accountability to empower your employees.

Empowered employees can better create change. They can make decisions and act quickly, rather than endlessly seeking approval and meeting resistance along the way, like Fosbury with his coaches.

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By shifting models, you can also connect the changemakers up and down the organization, which results in a better vision for the future, increased alignment, and more agility. The more connected your Catalysts are, the quicker they can find or create solutions.

Having said all this, success doesn’t come from a specific organizational structure. It comes when leaders understand the uncertainty of our collective reality and are open to different ways of working to navigate the ambiguity.

CREATE PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY

Even with rearchitecting, people feeling safe enough to suggest new ideas to leadership takes time. Your commitment to a culture of innovation must be more than lip service.

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You must create psychological safety.

Create a safe space for employees to explore, experiment, and take calculated risks. This is where innovation happens. Something that seems crazy—like throwing yourself headfirst over the high jump bar—could be the future. So don’t immediately shoot down new ideas. Instead, leverage your own experience and engage in constructive questioning to make people’s ideas even better.

You have to continually remind people—and yourself—that psychological safety is a priority for you. Both leaders and employees can fall back into their old habits of asking for permission instead of exploring on their own. When you see people deferring to leadership or leaving their divergent thinking outside the office, you have to remind them that it’s safe and you value their perspectives.

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CULTURE EATS STRATEGY

There’s a common saying in business: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” No single innovation strategy will ever be as powerful as an innovation culture. The way you adapt and respond positively to change is by creating a culture that empowers people, giving them the autonomy to identify and solve the challenges they are closest to.

By weaving innovation into every aspect of your company—your strategic mindset, your hiring, your organizational structure, and your approach to new ideas—you will build a culture that allows innovation. All the Fosburys in your company will feel safe to explore and act on new ideas, and when the world changes—which it will—you’ll be ready.


Shannon Lucas, Co-CEO, Catalyst Constellations

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