Creating a Culture of Innovation

by Rachel Ginsberg on July 9, 2013
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The mythology of startups today frequently centers on archetypes of brilliant founders and visionary designers who single-handedly build wildly successful, highly creative companies from scratch. Although these entrepreneurs do exist, there’s a bit more to it than that. As Drew Marshall, founder of Primed Associates, puts it: “Creativity is the price of admission, but it’s innovation that pays the bills.”

The distinction he makes is an important one, namely that creativity is an immeasurable ability to “unleash the power of the mind,” whereas innovation is an act of systemic organization that requires continuous investment in R&D.

Supporting innovation in any organization is often sweaty, frustrating work that begins with doing some market research. Those tasks are now frequently handled by professionals with design training, often using a methodology known as design thinking.

Design thinking, or user-centered design, emerged from a desire to understand the intricacies of the user experience. This understanding yielded customer insights that could be distilled into new and/or improved products and services which could meet needs that hadn’t yet been met and perhaps hadn’t even been previously identified. The design thinking framework — first used primarily in engineering, architecture, and urban planning — was refined and adapted for use across industries by the founders of several design firms that merged to become IDEO, the market-leading global innovation consultancy.

Many large companies — such as GE, Procter & Gamble, and Philips — have integrated design thinking into their organizational cultures, citing it as a means to drive growth. Intuit is also known for its innovative approach and shares its Catalyst Toolkit to allow other businesses to benefit from its practices.

Here’s how small businesses can implement the most basic principles of design thinking to create a culture of innovation.

1. Give your employees some breathing room. Google’s 20 percent time policy has become one of its most famous perks. By giving its engineers one day a week to work on company projects outside their job descriptions, the company actively encourages creativity and innovation while sending a message of trust to employees. Small businesses could reap the benefits of this kind of policy in other ways as well. Why not start a similar process with a brainstorming meeting and then have team members work together on the best ideas? Rewarding employees for their contributions is also a very important part of the process.

2. Customer feedback is useful, but it’s not everything. Asking customers for feedback on your products and services is important, but customers only know what they know. The steps in the design thinking process encourage us to dig deeper. Spend time with your clients while they’re using your products or services. Observe your competitors if possible to gain clear first-hand insight on where the gaps might be. This will also help you to understand when to listen to what customers say, and when to discard it. Focus groups are much the same. Gianfranco Zaccai, co-founder and president of the design consultancy Continuum, offers his take on when to use them: They can be incredibly useful to refine ideas, but less so to devise them.

3. Empower your staff to speak up. The employees who interact with your customers may have great insights to share, especially regarding product assortment and/or service offerings. Creating a culture of open communication in which employees offer their ideas and opinions freely will allow the company to benefit from them — and gratify team members when they see their ideas implemented.

To create and support an innovative culture, probably the most important thing is a commitment to the process, which can be difficult and stressful given that most often, it requires a massive cultural shift. One of the most critical features of design thinking – the need to research first, before coming up with ideas – is quite different from starting with an idea and devising ways to execute. Speaking with the Harvard Business Review on how design thinking impacted Edmunds.com, CEO Avi Steinlauf offered these cogent observations: “Before we embraced design thinking, it was a culture of ‘guru-dom’ where product ideas were generated by executives, and the execution was left to their teams. We found that design thinking generates greater interdepartmental collaboration, leading to better products.”

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