The biggest challenges any business will face as it scales typically center on people and product. That is, building a team that is bought into and driven by your organization’s purpose, and continuously delivering a product or service that meets the ever-evolving needs of your customers.
Developing a culture of deeply motivated individuals — people who are committed to an organization’s global mission and inspired to innovate — doesn’t happen overnight. Similarly, transformation through innovation is not a one-and-done exercise — it must be woven into the fabric of the company’s culture.
Purpose connects people
For any organization to truly make strides forward, it must have the support and dedication of its people — they, after all, are the lifeblood of a company. Many, however, mistakenly believe it’s up to each individual to find the motivation to succeed.
In my experience, I’ve found the opposite. It starts with a leadership team committing to a bigger vision, communicating that sense of purpose externally and then committing to practicing it every day.
Creating a culture of innovation is a process that takes introspection, mindfulness, and consistency from the leadership team. However, once it’s in motion, employees will feel empowered, focused, valued, and part of something greater. When purpose is emphasized over profit, the result is a highly engaged and creatively fueled workforce who is driven to continuously learn, grow, and innovate.
Nearly a year ago, our team at MST Solutions, a certified Salesforce consulting partner based in Arizona, put into practice a formalized effort toward innovation training, and it has paid off handsomely. But this wouldn’t have been possible if we hadn’t started from a strong foundation of culture and purpose.
Developing a guidepost for a culture of purpose
In our company’s early days, we established a set of team commitments that have guided everything we do to this day. We affectionately refer to these as our “Three Cs,” which stands for customers, colleagues, and community.
When we started communicating the vision to employees and connecting the dots between their work and the Three Cs, it created a cultural shift. It has brought the team together around important community initiatives, stimulated individuals to pursue personal growth and leadership opportunities, and guided our commitment to innovation. Incidentally, the Three Cs have also served as a key differentiator for our business.
While these commitments jumpstarted our quest for a more innovative culture, our leadership team knew we needed to address several questions for innovation to be fully embraced by the staff. First, we had to decide if there was even such a thing as a culture of innovation, and if so, could we achieve it?
Next, we had to audit our resources to ensure we were well equipped to inspire innovation. Finally, we had to establish a system to roll out our ideas companywide, while also creating the tools and framework to propel new ideas forward. All of these systematic changes we discussed also had to fit well within the existing culture and talent of the people within our walls.
Here are the actions we implemented to successfully create a culture of innovation:
Develop the path. One thing we’ve learned from our employee development program is that success directly correlates to the path we’ve developed. We knew this new innovation effort would be no different, so we started by developing a training program built upon a set of important principles:
- Start with why
- Convert problems to opportunities
- Fail with pride
- Be open to new ideas
- Be willing to take some risks
These principles helped create a safe space to encourage innovative thinking. But innovation also requires rewiring thought processes and traditional problem-solving approaches — it’s much different from invention and outside-the-box thinking. Innovative problem-solving is more about thinking inside of the box. A big part of developing the path involved training the team on various methodologies that could be used to systematically develop innovative thinking. These included subtraction, division, task unification, and several other innovation methodologies.
Gain employee buy-in. Because we started from a strong foundation with everyone on our team already bought into our team commitments (our Three Cs), getting them on board for innovation training was not a tough sell. They could see how it directly tied into the vision and deeper purpose and that was because we started with ‘why.’
The why will be different for every organization. Ours was to be relevant through continuous reinvention and to continue to build upon our high employee satisfaction by giving the team growth opportunities. Going through the process of defining your why will also help your leadership team establish goals and what success looks like.
Establish a practice of idea sharing. Two events have established an innovation rhythm for our company: idea-generating competitions and hack-a-thons. Following the training, we knew if the team wasn’t able to immediately apply what they’d learned, it would be lost. We started with the idea-generation competition in which employees could submit ideas for innovation in six pre-determined areas of focus. We set a deadline and an incentive: The top three would be awarded a prize and recognized at our next companywide meeting.
As a follow-up, we also hosted an internal hack-a-thon to get the team working together in an intensive environment using the tools and methodologies they had just learned. This was optional, but we had an overwhelmingly positive response. The team was eager to collaborate, and it has helped accelerate innovation in our company.
The bottom line
These deliberate steps have proven essential to helping us establish a culture of innovation, but reinforcing it on a daily basis has been equally important. For it to really take root in your culture, it has to become part of your processes, your language, your purpose, and even in the way you recognize your team and celebrate wins. And this must start at the top.
As business leaders, we want nothing more than for our employees to excel within the company, but it’s up to us to create an environment in which they can do so. A large part of that is modeling the attributes you want to see in your team and leading with a focus on purpose.
While creating a culture of innovation may not be necessary for survival for many organizations, it has helped stretch us toward continual improvement and growth, introduced a healthy challenge for our team, and keeps us on the right path to fulfilling our purpose. And keep in mind, creating a culture of innovation is not just for technology companies. It simply introduces a new way to problem-solve against the obstacles that can sidetrack your team and derail your purpose and vision.