Your Company Needs an Innovation Culture, Not an Innovation Team

You don't become an innovative company by hiring a few people to work on it while everybody else goes through the motions.

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By David Nichols

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When was the last time you came across an organization with a digital department? I'm willing to bet it was quite some time ago. After all, now that digital is inherent in all aspects of business separating it as a distinct function makes little sense. It's simply intrinsic to everything.

But what about innovation? In the transformative age, surely this should be similarly fundamental. However, while most companies recognize its importance, many continue to view innovation as a bolt-on -- a specialist function by a small, secret society of innovation experts who then tell the rest of the organization the latest, greatest way to grow the business.

Related: Think Innovation Isn't Part of Your Day Job? Here's Why It Should Be.

Yet, true innovation doesn't happen in a black box away from the prying eyes of the masses. It's open, transparent and collaborative. It's part of everyone's mindset and responsibility.

It's a culture.

Nearly every company I work with views innovation as a strategic imperative. But being an innovative company is very different from being a company with an innovation function. In one case, innovation is ingrained in all aspects of operations -- from organizational structure and recruitment strategy to how the business communicates with customers, staff and stakeholders. In the other, it's just another box on an organogram.

Of course, this kind of deep-rooted cultural transformation doesn't happen overnight. And it's about much more than putting ping-pong tables in reception, offering free lunches or building open workspaces.

Part of my role involves fostering innovation throughout our consulting practice, giving me firsthand experience of the challenges, opportunities and, yes, frustrations of becoming an innovative company. Yet, from our ability to adapt to changing market conditions and empower our people to ideate and collaborate with clients, the benefits are already being felt across the company.

So, here are my top five tips for how organizations of all shapes, sizes and sectors can adopt a true culture of innovation.

1. Lead but don't legislate.

As with any transformation program, moving to a culture of innovation requires strong leadership and a clear vision for change that employees can buy into and collectively deliver.

But leading doesn't mean directing. If people feel supported and inspired to change rather than mandated to do so from above, they're more likely to feel connected to the company's future and empowered to help shape it. Far from the traditional waterfall approach, businesses should be looking to create a situation where their people evolve the journey themselves.

Related: How Visionary Leaders Create the Conditions for Innovation to Flourish

2. Identify ambassadors.

A core group of energetic ambassadors who ask questions of leadership, sign up for training and volunteer for ideation initiatives, is vital to embedding innovation into a company's DNA.

At EY, our Innovation Ambassadors Program (IAP) is deliberately named and branded to make it feel aspirational. Moreover, the recruitment campaign was far more than a "click here if you're interested" message on our intranet. We ran a focused two-week campaign using Yammer, conference calls and emails, and I attended numerous meetings and events to get buy-in across the company. For us, the key is to never tell anyone they must join the IAP, nor do we say no to anyone who expresses interest.

Why? Because to achieve the diversity of thought we needed, it was vital to assemble a truly cross-function and cross-level group of ambassadors.

3. Unleash your special forces.

It's a good idea to identify a few "super ambassadors" from within the broader ambassador group too. These are normally early adopters whose personal purpose aligns with innovation. Our super ambassadors operate like Special Forces -- passionate about their mission and committed to forging connections with the rest of the business.

An effective way to do this is a hub-and-spoke model in which ambassadors act as the spokes linking the core innovation leadership group to the wider organization. These spokes meet regularly to share learnings and best practices, then rotate back out to upskill colleagues and inspire others to become part of the network.

4. Use open-source innovation.

As I've said, innovation can't happen in silos. Instead, businesses should recognize the best ideas will likely come from unexpected places -- including outside their own four walls.

Put simply: the whole company is the innovation department and the entire world is its network. Of course, every employee should be encouraged to innovate within their own jobs. But they should also be empowered to seek inspiration elsewhere, such as from colleagues around the business, industry peers and even completely unrelated fields.

This has the knock-on effect of creating a more entrepreneurial culture where people feel confident to take ideas to clients, even on topics outside their area of expertise. We refer to this as "open innovation," and we've already seen it uncover valuable, unforeseen opportunities.

5. Look beyond technology.

It can be tempting to think technology alone holds the key to unlocking innovation. Yet, businesses looking to positively disrupt culture should focus where technology intersects with social change.

Consider Henry Ford and Steve Jobs. Both were innovation geniuses who also knew technology couldn't change the game on its own. Instead, they sought to harness the connection between marketplace trends, evolving consumer needs, and new business models and products supported by technology. This helped create an innovation culture inside their companies while shifting how the world viewed them from the outside too. Any business looking to innovate in a way that truly impacts both performance and client relationships should be similarly far-sighted.

Related: Good Company Culture Removes Barriers Hindering Success

Clearly, the need for companies to innovate and stay ahead of the curve has never been more important. Yet nor has it ever been more democratic. These days, it's not so much survival of the fittest but survival of the most collaborative, with organizations that foster a culture of collective, open transformation best placed to succeed.

Yet, if culture is the key to innovation, people are the key to creating that culture. And not just a select few, but everyone. That's the true secret of innovation. And it's one that shouldn't ever be kept.

David Nichols

David Nichols, Americas Innovation Leader for EY Advisory

David Nichols, principal and Executive Committee member in EY Advisory, is the Americas Innovation Leader focused on driving growth opportunities through innovation. He previously led the Technology and Digital Transformation Leader for EY Americas and was a Global Managing Partner for Accenture.

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