Leading on the Cutting Edge: The Five Key Culture Traits That Drive Innovation

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Innovation has been the king of business buzzwords since before the VCR and home computer hit the mainstream, and its relevance grows by the day—as low-hanging competitive fruit like headcount reductions become increasingly long in the tooth. A relevant question in the face of this reality is whether any leader in any company can make their organization innovative, regardless of industry and maturity.

Let’s turn to Fortune’s three most admired companies for a possible answer. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak met at the Homebrew Computer Club, and Wozniak said of the Apple I, “It was to really show the people around me, to boast, to be clever, to get acknowledgement for having designed a very inexpensive computer.” Larry Page and Sergey Brin built a web crawler called BackRub—which grew into Google, now Alphabet—as a thesis project at Stanford based on Page’s fascination with tree-like information structures and Brin’s affinity for complex mathematics. According to Jeff Bezos, Amazon represented a “regret minimization framework,” spurring him to leave his prestigious Wall Street post over nagging remorse for not having participated in the internet boom sooner.

While a relatively small sample size, these titans of innovation are woven of a cloth common to other innovators at their level—too free-spirited (and expensive) to work for you. But to stop at that realization would be just about sinful given the extreme value innovation brings to today’s enterprises. After all, the market caps of Apple, Alphabet, and Amazon were $0 at the time of their founding ideas. As of this writing, they have grown to $616, $543, and $405 billion respectively.

Still, never fear. These companies are of a size now that the jaw-dropping new toys and services they produce aren’t the brain-children of their founders anymore. They’re coming from employees. You have employees—probably the right kind of employees. But they don’t know it—yet.

<p>Enemy of innovation</p>

Enemy of innovation


This is because human nature is highly transactional. How do you shop? Pack for a major trip? Cook a meal? We make and/or think in lists. It’s no different in business. Our calendars are glorified lists as are our inboxes, agendas, and project schedules. This organic transactionality is our nature. It is also an enemy of innovation.

Yet, the aforementioned giants hire people who put their pants on the same way yours do. The difference is that from the time their only employees were the officers on their corporate filings, they began with an innovation culture and carried it forward. Innovation is what they’ve always been, through and through.

Your task—admittedly not small, but the rewards are staggering—is to create a similar culture where list-checkers begin to look to the sky of possibility, taking their new creations to market effectively. The elements of that culture are:

  • Give them something super-aspirational for which to STRIVE: One message common to the titans of innovation is: “We are in the business of creating things people can’t live without but don’t know about yet.” On the surface, these are absurd aspirations, much like Seinfeld being “a show about nothing” and one of the ten most popular comedies in history. Just remember that our perception of the world went from flat to round. Removing the absurdity from the aspiration requires a leader to look workers who are in transactional mode in the eye to convince them that they believe in their own goals. Have a big, obnoxiously haughty mission statement, and communicate it with confidence until you get feedback that your employees have bought in.
<p>A belief in absurd aspirations.</p>

A belief in absurd aspirations.

Seinfeld Show
  • Give them space to EXPLORE: I believe curiosity is the starting point of innovation. Nestlé Waters North America has likely been the greatest pure-play innovator in making bottled water a hip, germane fixture in U.S. culture while “eliminating an average of more than five trillion calories per year from the American diet over the past 15 years,” according to Tim Brown, its Chairman, President and CEO. Mr. Brown is a champion of curiosity in business. In our interview, he held that curiosity is achieved in several ways. First, present painstaking detail that “shows people where you want to go, which creates a mood of positivity and adaptability.” The second, promote a “be here now” (i.e., mindful) mentality that ensures employees cordon off moments for deep contemplation. Finally, echoing a previous interview I had with Deloitte Consulting’s CEO, Janet Foutty, getting employees to “assume positive intention” breeds more of a mindset of collaborative risk-taking. —Click to tweet
  • Get them to MOVE: Speaking of risk-taking, all too frequently, the tree of an innovative idea falls in the forest, and no one hears it. Good ideas are worthless without implementation. Along these lines, Nestlé’s Brown posits that “the greatest enemy of innovation is fear,”—fear of failure and losing face with one’s colleagues and in one’s career. As a leader, the key to eradicate fear is to admit to employees when you stumble, how you feel about it, and what you learned from it. Sylvia Arbesu, Regional Director of Operations for Starbucks Coffee’s greatest admiration of CEO Howard Schultz, our foremost hot beverage innovator, is how he reminds us as leaders that we must vulnerable and lead with transparency. Together, vulnerability and transparency help us grow as leaders and help our partners grow as well. Do this, and your employees will take it upon themselves fearless execution of great ideas.
<p>The innovation tree.</p>

The innovation tree.

  • Make them think about the TARGET: There is a flip-side to infusing your culture with a creative and proactive mindset. As you nurture this enthusiasm, it needs a target. The single greatest historical contributor to failure of innovation to meet its user has been raw excitement lacking perspective about the target market. Amazon’s Bezos has obsessive focus on the customer. At Amazon, all products and services are bred starting with the customer in mind. In fact, development teams must write customer-facing sales copy for their idea before it is evaluated for funding. Be absolutely certain to channel innovative enthusiasm with the end in mind to save precious time and money.
  • Create the proper setting to EXPEDITE innovation: Fledgling startups have so much freedom built into their business models, empowered employees can shoot in countless directions at once. The other extreme is traditional blue chips competing with Silicon Valley’s finest while choking on arcane checks and balances. Building confidence in an idea in an environment that requires a week or more of approvals for ordering a $25 part for a prototype is certainly difficult. Remedies like lean and agile methodologies are tried and true. Infuse their fundamentals in your company’s operations, philosophies and messaging. While focusing on ensuring every task adds value, these principles are also very customer-focused.

Cultural transformation can be daunting, for certain, but keep in mind you don’t need to invent the next iPhone. Nestlé’s Brown cites an example where “a team invented a robot built out of a cordless drill and cleaning cloth,” both from Home Depot, that cleaned conveyor belts. It was a product unavailable from any vendor, expedited the cleaning process greatly, and kept employees off of dangerous ladders. No one understands your company better than your employees, and their incremental, continuous innovations can be cumulatively as valuable as Silicon Valley’s next product darling. Invest in freedom to create and ability to execute, and watch your people create growth—driving value of which you never could have imagined.


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Find Laura at Berdeo Group, connect with her on LinkedIn, and follow her on Twitter.