Today we hear a lot about building an innovative culture, or a culture of innovation. What does it mean to have a culture of innovation? Does it mean an open-office environment? Is it rooms covered in white boards where people hold design thinking sessions? Does someone in the organization own innovation? Should someone own it or should innovation be everyone’s job?

In order to create an innovation culture, first an organization’s people have to define what innovation means to them. Without a solid understanding of the process of innovation, there is no way a culture can be built to support it. Once the organization builds this definition of innovation, a story has to be built to understand why. Simon Sinek, the author of Start with Why talks about how companies need to stop leading with what they do, and start with why they do it. Many organizations define innovation by the what, and sometimes talk about the process of how they innovate, but very few can easily communicate internally or externally about why they need to be innovative.

Please understand that this is not an easy question to answer. It has to come from the top leadership and be communicated consistently and regularly so that the rest of the organization can understand its role in the process.

Once that why is communicated, understood and believed throughout the organization, a culture of innovation can begin to emerge. Here is where we can start to be very specific about each person’s role in innovation. I believe there are three groups, each with a distinctive role, that need to be present in every organization that wants to be innovative:  The Inspirers, the Translators, and the Executors.

The Inspirers are idea people. They think differently and act differently, and are truly focused on ideas that solve customer problems. They aren’t worried so much about the execution of the idea, they just want to create as many ideas as possible.

The Translators are the people who are focused on translating the ideas from the Inspirers into the plan for the Executors. This is an incredibly important role as without this translation, the distance between the crazy ideas and the execution plan is often too great to actually get anything done.

Finally, the Executors are the people in your organization who are focused on getting things to the finish line. They like the process, know what has to happen next, and they love to see products finish and scale. They don’t have to be innovative, but they play an important role in the innovation process.

When companies start with why, and align their innovation activities to the story, then it becomes much easier to see what role everyone plays in completing the story. In an innovative culture, not everyone has to be innovative, but everyone must know their role and the reason they are taking part.

Lessons Learned:

  1. Define what innovation means to the company, and why it matters, before a culture can be defined.
  2. Once the why is clearly communicated, internally & externally, then the roles and processes can be created that supports an innovative culture.
  3. There are three types of roles that are key to the innovative culture: the Inspirers, the Translators, and the Executors.
  4. It’s not everyone’s job to be innovative, but many people have a role to play in the innovation culture.

Related Posts: Building a Culture of Innovation, Your team has great ideas, now what?

The Nimble Hippo looks at how large organizations can build innovative cultures and disruptive strategies by taking the best lessons from startup ecosystems and applying them in a big-company context.

About The Author

Craig Haney
Director, Corporate Innovation, Communitech

Craig is leading the charge for corporate innovation in Canada. His work with Canadian Tire Innovations helped launch the LeanLab project at Communitech, helping large, non-tech companies become faster and more innovative by engaging with startups. As Director of Corporate Innovation at Communitech, his focus is to grow the ecosystem by exposing small companies to big problems they can solve for some of Canada’s largest players. Craig has an undergraduate degree from the University of Western Ontario and a Masters of Business, Entrepreneurship, and Technonogy (MBET) from the University of Waterloo.