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How to Build a Culture of Innovation

How to Build a Culture of Innovation

To build a culture of innovation in your business, you have to allow failure in your processes.

SpaceX, the aerospace manufacturer and space transportation services company behind the recent, historic return of human spaceflight to the United States knows this well. During its quest to develop reusable rocket boosters, SpaceX experienced ups and downs common with innovation. In its humorous video post, How Not to Land an Orbital Rocket Booster, SpaceX showed it was not afraid of failure.

The video includes dramatic scenes of failed booster trials. In one clip, a rocket explodes in midair. Several others show rockets slowly tipping over on an aquatic landing pad before blowing up in the ocean. The video also shows SpaceX CEO Elon Musk examining a smoldering crash. “It’s just a scratch,” the caption reads sarcastically.

Leaders who want to build an innovation culture need to look at this footage and ask themselves, “Am I allowing failure into my organization’s processes?”

“Innovation doesn’t come from doing things that are safe or doing the things that we’ve always done the way we’ve always done them,” says Mary Jo Ammon, Executive Coach and WDHB Facilitator. With decades of hands-on experience, Ammon has developed innovation-building strategies for corporations and multiple agencies of the federal government.

With Ammon as our guide, let’s examine three components of creating a culture of innovation: allowing failure to promote risk-taking, building trust, and creating excitement. We may not be building rocket boosters, but we can all build an innovation culture in our organization regardless of company size or industry focus.

Promote Risk-taking

The SpaceX video was not just a humorous review of rocket failures.

“What a great example of innovation that is,” Ammon said. “And the leaders in that organization accepted failure. They didn’t place blame. They saw failure as an opportunity to try again.”

SpaceX was willing to take risks in order to develop rocket boosters that could land themselves, even if it meant experiencing failure along the way. In order to innovate, you have to take risks and that means you will sometimes fail.

When leaders allow failure within the innovation process, they promote risk-taking within their organization. When employees know that they are encouraged to rake risks, a culture of innovation is realized.

A classic example of leadership that promotes risk-taking comes from legendary rocket scientist Wernher von Braun. Von Braun built the Saturn 5 rocket that carried men to the moon, but earlier in his career, he was the leader of a team making ballistic missiles for the U.S. Army. One early missile launch failed at a specific point and von Braun’s team couldn’t figure out why.

An engineer realized that he was at fault and confessed his error. Von Braun could have fired him. But instead, he thanked the engineer by sending him a bottle of champagne! By doing so, he set a tone of failure tolerance for his team. By allowing failure that is associated with taking risks, leaders inspire their employees to innovate without fear.

To create a culture of innovation, promote risk-taking by rewarding risk, avoiding blame, and thus removing fear. Instead of harsh retributions for ideas that don’t work, allow failure early in the innovation process.

Ask yourself: Where can you allow failure in order to promote a culture of innovation?

Build Trust

When von Braun rewarded the engineer who confessed his error, he showed that he trusted him. When leaders show confidence in their employees, they put trust into that relationship. This trust supports and further strengthens a culture of innovation.

There are three characteristics leaders need to exhibit in order to build trust. First, trusted leaders show vulnerability.

“Leaders have to be willing to be vulnerable. They have to say the things that they know to be true and acknowledge the things that they don’t know or understand,” Ammon said.

Vulnerable leaders do not risk their leadership position. Instead, vulnerability opens the door to big ideas from others that can have a huge impact on companies. Be receptive to ideas that are different from the way the company has always done things.

Second, leaders build trust by giving employees flexibility within boundaries. Ammon gave this example: suppose your company just brought in a new account management system. One of your managers may have lots of ideas for how that system should be customized. It may not be the right time to overhaul the new system completely, but you can accept and incorporate some of the employee’s ideas if they improve the functionality of the system.

Third, leaders assess when an employee wants to suggest a change. Lots of employees have innovative ideas. Not everyone will be brave enough to share them. Listen for the seeds of an innovative idea and ask questions to draw it out. Grow trust by listening to your employee. His or her idea could be groundbreaking.

Ask yourself: Do you exhibit these three characteristics? If not, what steps can you take to build more trust in your organization?

Create Excitement

Your company’s vision is the foundation for inspiring innovation. The vision should be a clear, meaningful statement about what your company does. Its inspiring power is in its ability to get employees invested in your company and excited about contributing to its success.

“Creating excitement about a clear and shared vision is essential to getting people to want to engage and perform at their highest levels,” Ammon said. When employees are invested and excited, they’ll be motivated to innovate on behalf of the company. The vision doesn’t have to be as exciting as space travel, it just has to be meaningful.

For example, a Fortune 500 corporate uniform provider creates employee excitement by giving their daily work meaningful value. The company cleans and sanitizes surgical gowns used in operating rooms. This mundane, daily task is extremely important since it keeps patients safe from infection during surgery. The employees feel a sense of pride and ownership in connection to this vital work.

The type of work — sending men into space or cleaning a uniform — doesn’t matter as long as the company translates its value into something meaningful to each employee.

Ask yourself: Can your employees clearly state your company’s vision? Does it generate excitement and a sense of personal pride for your employees?

Celebrate Innovation Success

In the last scenes of SpaceX’s crash video, an orbital booster lands without incident on land, and then one finally lands correctly on an aquatic landing pad. Success!

When the culture of innovation that you’ve established leads to the successful execution of your company’s vision, acknowledge the hard work — and not just with compensation, Ammon said.

Acknowledge people’s hard work by encouraging accolades and conversation. Make them feel valued. Reward them with new opportunities. Give them greater responsibility. And then, listen to their new ideas and allow more risk-taking. Allow the practice of innovation, and the innovative culture that you’ve established, to continue as an integral part of your corporation.

Desiring to create a culture of innovation and making it a reality are two different things. When you’re ready, we’re here to help. Contact us to learn how to create a climate of change and risk-taking to spark innovation in your organization.


Aish Hinton

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