Why businesses must cultivate an innovation-centric culture
Image credit: Boarding1now/Dreamstime
Truly successful innovation is only possible when companies see product development as part of a bigger goal and build it into their wider strategy.
Staying competitive in today’s tech-first climate requires businesses to innovate continuously. But innovation is no longer a linear project that can be mapped out and approached piecemeal. Instead, companies must be ready to act quickly and adapt their strategy as demand changes and external factors come into play.
Many businesses are struggling to keep up, with just 6 per cent of executives saying they are satisfied with their organisation’s innovation performance.
A lot of companies are still playing it too safe and focusing on the specifics of delivery timelines and dates, lines of codes and tickets, when they should be thinking more broadly about how their product will land in the market.
Truly successful innovation is only possible when businesses see product development as part of a bigger goal and build it into their wider strategy, rather than as a one-off project. A shift in mindset is necessary to achieve this; we must get to a place where innovation is an ongoing process that involves changing entire business models and creating a culture focused on equipping people with the right skills.
To do this, businesses must pivot their strategies, while also creating a culture that sets the right conditions for people to thrive in their roles. Gone are the days when having a strong product or software offering was enough for businesses to remain competitive. Now, it is essential that they become innovation-centric.
This means meeting not only the needs of customers today but also those that have yet to be imagined in the future. To do this, companies must shift both their thinking and customer-analysis strategies so they discover their customers’ future needs before even the customers do. Increasingly savvy customers will stick with the businesses that provide a seamless, innovative service and leave behind the ones that don’t.
Pre-empting customer needs is only possible through innovation, using techniques such as a ‘design thinking’ approach to problem-solving which allow teams to reach unique solutions. Design thinking is a non-linear, iterative process that teams use to understand users, challenge assumptions and redefine problems. It involves five phases – empathise, define, ideate, prototype and test – and works best for approaching poorly defined or unknown problems.
Embedding such techniques into a business strategy can allow people, teams and organisations to build a human-centred perspective while maintaining a scientific approach – both of which are essential to innovation.
None of this is possible, however, without first cultivating a culture that is genuinely focused on innovation. Far more than providing the tools and technology to innovate, businesses must bring people on the digital journey they want to take – to get their buy-in and support from the start. Placing importance on sharing the bigger picture will help instil an innovation-focused mindset in which people feel excited and encouraged to share ideas and proactively suggest new ways of solving problems.
While it is understandable that change can make some feel nervous, it is possible to cultivate this culture shift by adopting ‘agile’ as a technique. This process builds up an organisation’s ‘adaptability muscles’ by helping people get used to change by emphasising how it benefits team members individually, as well as the organisation as a whole. It is an iterative approach to solving problems, breaking down large, potentially risky ideas into smaller chunks.
This technique can be implemented by first adopting a clear vision, then identifying role models in areas of change, and finally breaking down big ambitions into achievable chunks of progress.
Building this agile technique into a business’s culture requires a sustained effort and change in approach from all people to develop a culture of collaboration, continuous improvement and experimentation – and ultimately create a more innovative environment.
While managerial-level leadership is of course necessary to implement a culture change, it is also vital that innovation comes from everyone. Innovation cannot be a top-down approach, but must be integrated into the way everyone works and thinks.
Integral to achieving this is investing in upskilling people so they have the necessary tools in their repertoire to think innovatively. Training in techniques that implement concepts such as design or agile can then be applied to workstreams at all levels of a business and in all teams, and people can feel empowered that they are contributing to the overall culture of their organisation.
By making agility integral to business culture, leadership teams should naturally be providing people with the opportunity to learn new skills, think about problem-solving differently and step outside of their comfort zone. But none of this is possible without training and encouragement.
Providing a space for people to flourish, in both their professional and personal lives, will also be key. Remember, it’s an AND not OR world, and they don’t have to pick between the two in order to be successful. Working in small units is a great way to enable this. It creates the close-knit feel of belonging to a small company, making sure people feel comfortable enough to innovate and share ideas, but with the opportunities and impact available in a large company. In turn, this approach enables employees to realise their potential, learn new skills on high impact and deliver transformational work.
It is also vital to conduct regular team health checks, being sensitive to signals and indicators in people that they might be struggling, and taking the time to stop and check in. This simple step can be powerful in helping teams and organisations identify areas requiring focus and support and is essential to any cultural change a business undergoes.
Technology development alone will only take a company so far in terms of innovation. Nurturing people in a vibrant culture of collaboration is the key to truly unlocking growth and innovation in agile environments. Businesses that focus on investing in training and upskilling their staff with the right skills and mindset, as well as implementing an innovation-centric culture, will ultimately be the ones that thrive.
Stephen Paterson is chief for people & technology at AND Digital.
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