We use cookies to improve this site and enable full functionality. You can change your cookie settings at any time using your browser. Our cookie policy.

How leaders can create a culture where innovation thrives

How leaders can create a culture where innovation thrives

How leaders can create a culture where innovation thrives Does your company have a culture in which innovation thrives? Are people challenging the status quo and being encouraged by leaders to take risks in pursuit of innovation? Or is the opposite true, whereby managers don’t take time to listen to new ideas and suggestions to make improvements are met with the comment “But we tried that last year and it didn’t work”?

Building a culture of innovation is hard work. Many leaders who have been given the directive to ‘build a culture of innovation’ immediately think about the Googles and Apples of the world. Images of beanbags and table-tennis tables fill their minds, as do ‘blue-sky’ workshops in far-off country retreats. However, what we know from the research is that all this is completely ineffective in creating a culture of innovation.

As is often the case, the voice of popular culture and fad-ridden management books wins out over the voice of scientific research. Jargon-filled, densely written journal papers are harder to access than the pop-psych books filling the shelves.

The scientific research into how to create a culture where innovation thrives is both plentiful and precise. For example, Samuel Hunter, from the University of Oklahoma, and his colleagues Katrina Bedell and Michael Mumford ran a large-scale meta-analysis to understand which variables had the biggest impact on innovation culture. They reviewed 42 journal papers which in total, had drawn data from 14,490 participants.

The research revealed 14 key drivers into innovation culture and ranked the drivers from most impactful through to least impactful. Let’s delve further into three of the top ranking variables.

Challenge – and find the right level of it
Hunter’s meta-analysis found that employees feeling a strong sense of challenge in their work is one of the strongest drivers of a culture of innovation. They defined challenge as the ‘perception that jobs and/or tasks are challenging, complex and interesting — yet at the same time not overly taxing or unduly overwhelming’.

It is important that you don’t simply think about how to give people the biggest possible challenge. Instead you should ensure that the level of challenge you set is one that is achievable. On the flip side, setting tasks that people are able to complete with their eyes closed will not breed a culture where innovation thrives.

In a 2014 review of several meta-analyses, Silvia da Costa, from the University of the Basque Country, and several of her colleagues examined the difference in creativity for those in challenging versus non-challenging roles. The researchers found that if people are in a role that challenges them, 67 per cent will demonstrate above-average creativity and innovation in their performance. In contrast, only 33 per cent of people in ‘easy’ jobs show above- average innovativeness.

At GE, Jeff Immelt famously introduced Imagination Breakthroughs (IBs) to his senior leadership team. Each member of the team was responsible for generating three IB’s every year, which an IB being defined as an innovation that will contribute $100 million of incremental growth. The challenge is big, but the resources made available to leaders make it a challenge that they can meet.

Matching the level of challenge to an individual’s skill level is key to finding the optimal level of challenge. As a manager, take time to thoughtfully consider how you allocate tasks and projects to people. Ensure that you are matching these elements so that people feel a significant sense of challenge. 

Risk-taking – and failure not being seen as a dirty word
The notion of failure being unacceptable is one I have found resonates with many organisations. Failure is generally thought of as a dirty word, and something that gets swept under the carpet when it does rear its ugly head. But being able to acknowledge and learn from failure is a huge part of building a culture where risk-taking is tolerated and where innovation can thrive.

Leaders play an important role in signaling that risk-taking is encouraged and that failure is tolerated. The Tata Group is an example of a company that have embraced risk-taking. Like many organisations serious about innovation, they have an annual innovation awards program. While that is not particularly ground-breaking, what is innovative is the awards categories. InnoVista, like most innovation recognition programs, pays tribute to the Group’s most outstanding and most promising innovations. But there is also a category called Dare to Try, which was launched back in 2009.This category is reserved for ideas that were attempted but that, according to the Tata Group website, ‘have fallen short of achieving optimum results’.

As a leader, think about initiatives and actions that you can put in place to illustrate that your company doesn’t just pay lip-service to risk-taking, but actually does it. You may even want to consider having a company award for innovations that were not commercial successes (and were actually failures), but where the learnings were really rich. Finally, consider reframing risk-taking in a positive way, such as talking about how risks provide people with the opportunity to learn.

Support from the top – and not simply paying lip service
Ensuring that senior leaders in your organisation understand and communicate the importance of innovation is critical. In fact, Hunter’s meta-analysis showed that people feeling that the top level of management truly supported innovation efforts was one of the strongest predictors of an innovation culture.

Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for senior leaders to play it safe when confronted with the choice of whether to support innovation. I recently worked with the Australian leadership team of a global technology company. While innovation was a strategic priority for the company globally, the Australian CEO was frightened of innovation because it meant taking a risk. And this fear permeated the business, which meant that employees were too nervous to do anything differently, because that was the message they were getting from the top.

If you are a senior leader, make sure that you see your role as actually doing innovation, as opposed to just delegating it to other people, as research has shown this is a key differentiator between leaders in innovative versus non-innovative companies. Further, as a leader, think about behaviours you can engage in that symbolise your commitment to, and support of innovation.


Dr Amantha Imber is the Founder of Inventium (www.inventium.com.au), Australia’s leading innovation consultancy. Her latest book, The Innovation Formula, tackles the topic of how organisations can create a culture where innovation thrives. Amantha can be contacted at amantha@inventium.com.au