Is there one practice that enables the creation of an innovation culture?

I am asked to speak on a regular basis about how large companies can become more nimble, and typically many attendees want a sliver bullet. They want to find one thing that can be done to enable a more creative and innovative culture.

The short answer is that there probably isn’t one policy, rule, or foosball table that will be a catalyst for innovation. Saying that, there probably is one question you can ask yourself to determine if there is a culture within an organization that fosters innovation. Ask yourself this:

Does the company reward failure, and have a systemic way to learn from mistakes?

We talked about this briefly in my last post, and marketing guru Scott Bedbury addressed this in our Nimble Hippo Radio podcast last week, that not everyone is innovative, and nor should they be.

Under normal circumstances we don’t want our employees or peers to be wrong. We don’t want to reward recklessness, clearly. But we do want to reward calculated risk, even if a given risky venture doesn’t pan out, as long as the lessons of that failure are shared. Bedbury spoke about this and told his story about his time at Nike when CEO Phil Knight actively “promoted the brave” if the lessons that were learned through mistakes were shared across the organization. The caveat, however, was that if you kept your mistakes to yourself, or attempted to conceal them, and someone found out about them afterward … that’s a different story. That was a fast track to a pink slip.

What kinds of activities take place when a company has this type of culture? First, if they use agile methodologies across their organization, they probably have some version of a daily stand-up. This gives everyone in a team a chance to talk about what they did yesterday, what they learned yesterday, and what they are doing differently today as a result. There is an opportunity to share with everyone on your team mistakes and lessons that were learned.

You don’t have to be an agile software development shop to have a daily, or weekly stand-up. Communitech Executive Human Resources Strategist Nancy Buck, who will be featured in our next blog post, talked to me about learning meetings. If one of her team members “had a big learning week,” a learning meeting gave everyone on her team a chance to talk through it, and share those lessons across the organization. It is especially important that this happens at the senior level, as those lessons can then easily be transferred through each leader’s team and among their direct reports.

Intuitively we know that we learn from mistakes, but we’d all rather learn from other people’s mistakes than our own.

Now, the most challenging part of this formula is to figure out how to reward those lessons. There are a few ways to do that. Documenting lessons learned as part of regular employee and team reviews is one way. Having senior leadership celebrate those lessons publicly in the organization is another.

Intuitively we know that we learn from mistakes, but we’d all rather learn from other people’s mistakes than our own. Let’s try to change that thinking. Let’s try to test those assumptions, build a hypothesis, and test it. Let’s document the lessons learned and find a way to share them and then then let’s celebrate the net benefit those lessons bring to the organization, and the employee who brought them to light.

Lessons learned:

  1. An innovation culture isn’t about one thing, but there might be one question to ask to see if the organization has the capacity to be more innovative.
  2. Build a feedback loop into the daily tasks of the job so it’s natural to share mistakes and the lessons from those mistakes.
  3. Promote the brave who share their mistakes, but not the stupid, ones who try to hide them.
  4. Celebrate lessons learned in a public manner, and the individual who was bold enough to try something in the first place and who unlocked that lesson.

Related Blog Post: Building a culture of innovation

Related Podcasts: Episode 1 – Lessons from intrapreneurs, Episode 4 – Scott Bedbury

Photo: Hippo Chasing Man by John C. Bullas is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

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.