Cultivating an innovation culture

Swapping buzzwords and bravado for rigour and discipline

How many times have you heard the term ‘innovation’ being bandied around as a hallmark of progress for a company? ‘Innovation’ is one of the most overused business buzzwords, so it’s unsurprising that its meaning is being lost, as well as a clear understanding of what driving it actually requires. If we consider the smallest unit of innovation as an idea, then it’s safe to say we are all innovating, all the time, right? However, when we think about innovation in the context of new proposition design or technology development, it’s easy to be ‘innovating’ without necessarily doing it well. To promote innovation of quality, it is essential to establish a supporting culture. But what does a fruitful innovation culture look like?

One of the reasons that the innovation buzz has become so popularised across the corporate world, is that it appears to come with a suite of highly desirable behaviours and attributes. These often include an emphasis on collaborative working, the licence to experiment, reduced hierarchy, and permission to fail. They not only sound differentiating in the speeches of business leaders but also promise a more progressive, autonomous, and rewarding experience of work for clients and colleagues alike. Yet, the challenge here is the flipside to these behaviours: they all must be earned and earning them is easier said than done.

Having the permission to fail is only productive when the quality of an experiment is excellent and learnings from the results are not compromised by teams lacking skills or ability.

Without sounding too foreboding, many of the less enticing behaviours and attributes required for a successful innovation culture revolve around rigour and discipline. For example, having a reduced organisational hierarchy is motivating for many, but requires an even tighter rein on accountability to ensure that all tasks are completed, and any failures can be pinpointed quickly and learnt from. Having the permission to fail is only productive when the quality of an experiment is excellent and learnings from the results are not compromised by teams lacking skills or ability.

Collaboration can also be great fun but again, needs to be accompanied by a system of challenge and feedback in which there is a safe environment for people to share what has not worked for them openly and honestly.

From a mindset perspective, one of the biggest challenges of innovation culture for more senior colleagues with less experience of innovating, is the curbing of ego and admitting what they do not know. In short, these more rigorous behaviours are not easy to adopt.

So, how might we engage with a more complete spectrum of innovation behaviours?

  • Rewarding innovative behaviour: Key to identifying the missing behaviours required for innovation is an assessment of the rewards and recognition mechanisms in place within an organisation. Most are not set up to reward these behaviours – especially traditional large-scale corporations, laser focused on commercials. Yet, without changing our systems of reward to merit innovative behaviour, there is no incentive for people to behave differently – meaning they rarely do.

  • Honest and relatable leadership role models: Having established what ‘good’ innovation looks like from a behavioural standpoint, it is also crucial that these behaviours are role-modelled by leadership. A leader openly ‘owning’ examples of their failures, along with openness around their methodology and their subsequent learnings is a lot more likely to prompt colleagues to give themselves permission to fail rather than simply talking about.

  • Be wary of damaging behaviours and accepting poor outputs: In the same way that positive behaviours must be rewarded and role-modelled, it is key that damaging behaviours or poor quality outputs are constructively challenged. For example, services that do not empathise with customer needs, or that have been devised without ensuring the root problem is actually being solved, should be identified before such behaviour is normalised within a team. Due to the rapid pace at which innovation moves, there should be no leeway given to poor attitudes or contributions. This in turn demands a willingness of individuals to lean into difficult conversations at times and healthy conflict, with a focus on emotional intelligence.

  • Learn from true masters in their field: A great deal of quality feedback comes from innovation teams made up of members who are true masters in their field. This shouldn’t simply be the most senior person in a team, but those who are most highly skilled and with the biggest wealth of diverse experience. Some of these colleagues may sit in more junior roles, often specifically hired into the team to contribute specialist knowledge and experience. Recent joiners also tend to be the most open to new ways of working because they hold a fresh view of what work can look like from experience elsewhere.

  • It isn’t just the role of leadership: We must acknowledge that the responsibility of cultivating an innovation culture does not sit with leadership alone. At an individual level, one of the healthiest ways to engage with innovation and the related ways of working, is to nurture your own emotional intelligence – not least because it is a greater predictor of professional success than IQ. In developing our self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship management, and resilience we greatly strengthen our ability to engage in the tougher innovation behaviours of rigour, challenge and discipline.

True innovation is not easy, but, if we grow ourselves as innovators at an individual level and reward the full spectrum of innovation behaviours at a group level, over time we stand to establish cultures that not only benefit our businesses, but promote more rewarding and meaningful experiences of work.

If you are interested in learning more about cultivating innovation cultures or how we could help your business, why not drop us message at

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Philip Shaw

Cultural Designer and Innovation Specialist Deloitte Ventures

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