Fostering a Culture of Innovation, and What It Takes to Do It Right

Fueling innovation should be a priority among organizations. But how can leaders build a culture that does just that?
Entrepreneur Leadership Network Writer
Founder & CEO of VAST Data
5 min read
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

While most leaders strive to foster a culture of innovation within their organization, there are few who actually do it right. But without this culture, and this innovative mindset woven into the fabric of an organization, success can be hard to grasp. Executing on innovation requires diverse talent, risk-taking, creativity, and space to grow. But most importantly it involves leaders who are willing to embrace a little chaos every now and then. There’s no doubt that innovation is vital for a company to maintain its competitiveness, and so it is my belief that fostering innovative ideas should be a priority.  

Related: 5 Ways to Join the Ranks of the World's Most Innovative Companies

Here are five ways that leaders can do just that:   

1. Set unrealistic expectations

While there are leaders who may believe that setting unrealistic goals can affect company morale, I’ve found that the individuals who develop the most innovative ideas are those that refuse to be realistic. Setting unrealistic goals can actually have a very positive impact on the culture of your company. For one, unrealistic goals can help eradicate the fear of failure and allow your employees to become more familiar with thinking outside the box and finding unconventional ways to solve problems. When I challenge my team with a task, for example, I’m often approached with two different solutions. In most cases, I like to ask for a third because I find that it forces my team to innovate and to think differently. If you don’t compromise, and if you encourage that third option, then you push your team to try harder. Many times they’ll succeed. I don’t look for average, and setting goals that are easy to achieve paves the way for average. I always say I would rather have an employee make 10 mistakes a day and show they’re doing a lot than make no mistakes and achieve very little. That’s why when I make a mistake, I always ensure that everybody sees it so that the team understands that those mistakes are what eventually help break down barriers. 

2. Remove the hierarchy and avoid structure

At VAST we have no hierarchy and it’s because innovation is more often driven by a collaborative workplace in which transparency and creative freedom are celebrated. For team members to experiment with new ideas and processes, you have to give them the freedom and space to nurture those ideas. You also have to understand that to excel, many will first fail. I’ve found that a top-down approach can often hinder team members from actively participating in the innovation process for fear of being judged or reprimanded for unsuccessful ideas. More frequently, it’s the team members who are closest to the work that tend to have better and more creative ideas than I do. I believe that their voice should be stronger than mine when it comes to sharing those ideas. 

Related: 9 Ways Your Company Can Encourage Innovation

3. Collaboration is key

Innovation is very closely tied to teamwork — two people can do something that one person cannot. This is especially true if you have two very smart people, one who is experienced with a deep understanding of the subject matter, as well as one who is fresh (and may not understand anything) but who is smart. The combination of experience and fresh thinking drives innovation. Having someone to bounce ideas back and forth with can more quickly iterate towards something new and towards something that likely has a higher probability of working. 

4. Provide continuous feedback

Sharing feedback on a regular basis has many benefits and can help team members improve while also staying engaged. Team members that receive consistent feedback know that they’re supported and are more easily able to grow and challenge themselves; they also tend to be more productive. I don’t give formal annual reviews, nor do I believe in them. My team members deserve more than that. They deserve an attentive manager who is invested in their growth and one who’s not afraid to challenge them. Informal feedback, given often, establishes a more accurate representation of employee performance, in addition to ensuring that there is no disconnect between how an employee is doing and how they perceive themselves to be doing. Team members know where they stand and are constantly challenged and supported in their growth. 

5. Communicate the mission

This is paramount. Everyone, every morning, needs to understand your company’s big mission and recognize how their part fits in and advances it. It’s that love and desire to solve the important problems that no one has tried to solve before that leads to innovation. Finding the people who can align with that mission and who are excited about the challenge will dictate the probability of success more than anything else. 

So how do you find those people? I tend to look for the problem-solvers, the optimists, the intelligent yet humble ones that aren’t afraid to push boundaries. We focus on diversity of thought from the experienced to the inexperienced, those that bring a first principles approach to solving new — and old — problems by questioning every assumption you think you know. By presenting the right problems to solve, those that are big and impactful, you can develop an environment that excites your team and create a place where innovation can flourish. 

Related: 4 Steps to Cultivating an Innovation Mindset in Your Organization

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