How to Create an Innovative Work Culture

It’s easy to talk about innovation, but what about walking the walk?

In Pierpont’s ongoing research study with The University of Texas at Austin on defining expertise in innovation, one of the most frequently mentioned trip points in becoming an innovative company was the gap between pursuing innovative projects and making innovation part of a company’s culture.

From interviews with more than 60 innovation leaders across multiple industries, Moody College of Communication Professors Brad Love and Jeffrey Treem found that the most frequent pathways companies take to create an innovative culture are some of the least effective. Commonly sought strategies such as adding innovation to a company’s guiding principles, naming a Chief Innovation Officer, or creating an Innovation Department do little to influence the day-to-day behavior of a workforce on their own.

Instead, the executives interviewed talked about consistently and intentionally crafting an innovative culture based on three concepts: language, storytelling and authenticity. Pierpont recently sat down with Love to dive deeper into the role these somewhat nebulous concepts play in influencing workplace culture.

Talking the Talk

“The problem with innovation is that people don’t really know what it means,” said Love. “It’s become a buzz word. The core concept of innovation is meeting an unmet need in a new and different way, but on its own, that definition can be a hindrance because every employee will interpret it differently.”

The language and rhetoric innovative companies used in their internal communications were akin that of a startup or software company, with many conversations focusing around learning, questioning, risk and effort. They worked hard to help employees at all levels of the company reframe the work they did every day as an opportunity to speak up and try something new.

Nowhere was language more important than when talking about failure. According to the research, innovative companies actively work to reframe failure as a useful learning tool and failed initiatives as investments (rather than shortcomings) throughout their organization. Countless interviewees talked about failure as a concrete movement toward a goal, understanding that failure would ultimately lead to better processes that, over time, would differentiate their company.

The Innovation Message: Failure = Learning = Better Processes = Differentiated Company

When talking with their teams, executives mentioned using rhetoric such as “It was a sideways slide,” “You invested in innovation, you didn’t fail,” or “You tried really hard, and that’s our focus” to keep employees motivated to try new ideas and build upon learning opportunities.

Sharing Stories

In practically all interviews, storytelling was referenced as an essential tool for seeding an innovative culture throughout a company and aligning branding with behavior. Storytelling humanizes innovation, giving employees an actionable context to what the pursuit of innovation looks and sounds like on a day-to-day basis. Innovative companies make a concerted effort to source and share both internal and external stories of new ideas, successes and attempted initiatives throughout their organization. They equally encouraged employees to speak up and share their own ideas, stories and experiences throughout the firm.

Once again, this was helpful when it came to talking about failed projects or initiatives.

“Every person we interviewed seemed to have a chambered set of stories and anecdotes around failure ready to go,” commented Love. “They told their teams stories of major brands like Google and 3M that tried something daring and failed, which not only helped soften the blow of failure when it inevitably occurred but motivated those teams to keep trying new things.”

Some innovative organizations went even further by sharing stories of their own failures publicly, such as in industry trade publications. Rather than harming their brand, this courageous form of storytelling actually helped to boost recruitment and attract passionate talent.

“People want to work for organizations where they know they can fail and try new things,” said Love.

Walking the Walk

This is where the rubber hits the road on developing an innovative culture, and also where things are most likely to go off the rails.

“Talking about innovation is all well and good, but it has to be embodied through action,” concluded Love. “Innovative companies embedded innovation in their culture by formally rewarding it and making it part of employees’ annual review processes. If the person raving about innovation is not the person doing raises and reviews, there’s a stop gap there.”

Some of the rewards programs innovative companies said they implemented including offering financial incentives or other forms of recognition to individuals and teams that championed innovative solutions or ideas. Several companies mentioned that they reward innovative ideas but not outcomes; others went so far as to reward or publicly praise failed projects.

Interviewees also talked about formalizing the permission to innovate by making it a part of employees’ hiring and review processes. Did they propose new ideas this year? Did they push the envelope in their work? What did they learn this year that will help drive the business forward?

Finally, outside of review cycles it proved important for organizations to give employees permission to ask questions and – when they did – ensuring they had a safe space to raise their hand, speak their mind or propose an idea without the fear of being censured. This included being able to ask questions of other departments and team members such as “How does this work? Or “Can you help explain this to me?” In short, by creating an idea-sharing and teaching culture, organizations inadvertently helped to create an innovative culture.

In our next post, we’ll explore the types of talent and team structures that are proven to yield more innovative ideas. Stay tuned to our Sparking Innovation page to learn more.