3 Lessons for Creating a Culture of Innovation

Recognize This! – Innovation requires learning from failure, actively seeking insight and input from everywhere, and focusing your energy to deliver results.

There’s a lot of bad advice in the business world, and even worse aphorisms. One I particularly abhor is “Failure is not an option.” Of course, in some situations, failure really is not an option (bringing astronauts safely home, for example). But in general, in the business world, failure must not only be an option, but actively encouraged – especially in research and development organizations.

Why? Very rarely is any innovation a success with the first germ of an idea. Without failure, we cannot learn, advance and grow. The product is called WD-40 and not WD-1 for reason. The 39 prior attempts for a successful water displacement fluid failed, but each failure led to a new understanding and ultimately the right solution in the 40th iteration.

A recent New York Times “Corner Office” interview with Pedro Baranda, president of Otis Elevator Company, drove this point home for me. From his interview, I gleaned three lessons for creating a culture of innovation.

1) Reward Failure

“You have to learn to be tolerant of failure, because if you are intolerant of failure, your company will retrench and not be innovative. You have to encourage people to take calculated risks. If you punish people who take risks and don’t succeed, they will never take a risk again.”

People will follow the path along which they are recognized and rewarded. If you recognize people for the lessons learned from failure, then they will willing continue to search for success in new and innovative ways.

2) Look for Diversity in Input

“We bring together teams of people from around the world, because I believe that diversity is fundamental in the thought process. I really appreciate the importance of diversity as a catalyst for creation and innovation. It matters not just in product development and technology — I think it happens in many other aspects of the enterprise. But for innovation, it’s fundamental.”

If you have the luxury of working in a global or multi-national organization, what are you doing to draw ideas from everywhere and everyone? In domestic-only companies, what are you doing to draw ideas cross-functionally? Often, the most insightful ideas come from someone outside the usual realm who brings new eyes to the challenge.

3) Focus Your Innovation Energy

“We have a more structured process, even though some people might think processes are kind of a straitjacket for innovation. But in our case, they’re for guiding the thought process. We decide where to focus on innovation, and we call them our innovation thrusts, which are based on what we’re hearing from customers, architects, consultants, general contractors — everyone in our industry.”

The creative ideas gathered from multiple sources must be focused on or they will only languish as ideas. Creating a process for determining which ideas to pursue is critical to not just moving from idea to product, but to fostering that desired culture of innovation. People need to see the end result to believe in the process.

How does your organization foster a culture of innovation?

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