7 secret ingredients to an innovation culture

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My favourite Halloween movie is Beetlejuice. The first time I saw it I was seven, and it was scary and chaotic and made me uneasy, if not queasy – but I could not wait to watch it again.

It’s now an annual Halloween tradition in our house, and as October 31st approaches I can’t help but think about how much this cult classic – with its wacky characters on an offbeat adventure – reminds me, weirdly, of my job: to catalyse an innovation culture at BlueChilli and teach big corporations how to innovate the startup way. Hear me out…

The idea of innovation, much like Beetlejuice, can feel scary and chaotic at first. The movie has no genre, much like innovation doesn’t belong to any one team in an organisation. It also has a strange ending with no resolution, just as innovation seems to be an ambiguous, ongoing initiative. Like Beetlejuice himself, innovation can be seen as an intruder, and therefore feel like a threat to those already in the organisation. But, nothing could be further from the truth.

At BlueChilli, our work with leading organisations gives us a peek into the fears that stop teams from innovating. The most common question we hear is “What is the one thing we need to do to unlock a culture of innovation?”

The truth is that there is no one thing. It’s a combination of things.

The Innovation Equation: injecting creative confidence & calculated risk-taking into your culture

Our equation consists of two equal parts: what the Organisation needs to provide and what type of Team you need to gather around it.

Activated Innovation = Organisation (Vision + Autonomy + Flexibility) x Team (Curious + Creative + Courageous + Generous)

You can then split the division of labour for innovation right down the middle: leadership is in charge of the organisation’s innovation deliverables, while each individual is responsible for their individual contributions to the innovation mandate.

Getting started is as simple as identifying the pockets in your organisation that already live these seven secret ingredients. To do that, let’s break them down further, and explore how we’ve made them work for us at BlueChilli.

An offbeat adventure: How to set up organisational pillars of innovation

1. Communicate a clear and purpose-driven Vision
Vision goes beyond the cosmetic need for a company to have a “mission statement” – it’s about creating speed-of-action. If each individual in an organisation knows why they are there and what they are trying to accomplish, action is accelerated as no one has to stop and wonder, ask or answer this question. Your people can simply spring to action knowing which direction to point to and what problem they are fundamentally solving.

2. Deliver the means and tools for Autonomy
Innovation needs autonomy like a plant needs water. If you have a culture of “approvals” and “permission”, you are creating a firewall for innovation. We see many companies who have set up forms for people to “suggest ideas for innovation”, and they wonder why these don’t take off. Creating systems of permission is not the same as giving people freedom to experiment, fail, learn and start over.

3. Create trust-enable Flexibility
Once you are sure of what direction you are going and have the autonomy to decide how to get there, you will need your role and job to be pliant enough to allow you to do it. This means that there has to be leeway for roles to diverge from their original purpose, and for projects to be delivered in new ways. Similarly, your team will need to have ownership of how and when they work. Flexible working environments breed creativity as people’s creative metabolisms are activated at different times and by different things.

Wacky Characters: how to spot, hire and retain innovators

Here is where things get really fun, but perhaps a little bit tricky. As an #HRTech professional, I get asked how to attract the most innovative people – and how to keep them. That’s a good question, but what you should you be asking is: do these people already exist in our organisation right now? And if they do, is the current version of our company culture getting in their way? We can help you out with the first question right away: look for people who are curious, creative, courageous and generous.

1. Curious – Are they activated by their desire to learn or by being exposed to new things? Do they have any hobbies or interests outside of work? Do they ask inquisitive questions in meetings?  

2. Creative – Do they come up with left-of-centre ways of problem solving? This has to be coupled with a psychologically-safe work environment or no one will want to bring up the “wacky idea”. Look for people who suggest shortcuts or who get involved in other people’s work. Those are the ones who are often trying to find new ways of doing things, but find themselves hitting corporate walls.  

3. Courageous – Innovation and disruption need courage, whether it’s to put your hand up to suggest something unexpected, or put your reputation on the line for a bold idea you believe in. Most companies defer to risk aversion and don’t incentivise courage. Who in your organisation is demonstrating it anyway? That’s a good place to start!

4. Generous – We often overlook generosity as a fundamental trait in innovative teams. We need generosity for teams to share learnings, especially when it comes from failure. You also need generous team mates to hold space for each other while ideas are developing and the process still feels bumpy. 

Once you’ve located your wacky characters, give them one project to work on, preferably an internal one, and see what you learn from it. It will take a few iterations to get the combination right, but the ripple effect will start flowing into your culture. 

Final Thought

Innovation doesn’t have to be scary, but it will likely spook you the first time you see it in front of you. 

“The secret is to make innovation into a habit rather than into an invocation.” 

A culture of activated innovation is messy and odd, and it brings messy and odd traits in people. That’s normal. You have to do the hard work of building the elements into your organisation’s culture, gathering your cast of characters and watching it unfold until it’s not scary anymore. Before you know it, much like the Deetzes and Maitlands (seriously, if you haven’t seen Beetlejuice, you really should), you’ll learn to live with it in perfect harmony.

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