Many organizations talk about the need to innovate. But what does that mean exactly? How can we create an innovative culture?
At this year’s Great Place to Work Conference for small and medium workplaces, I had the chance to hear Ruth Yomtoubian, director at AT&T Foundry, talk about their innovative culture. We might have a tendency to think of AT&T in a more traditional business sense. Ruth described Foundry as a “culture within a culture.”
She also pointed out there’s a lot of “faux innovation” in the business world. If your organization is looking to infuse the qualities of innovation into your culture, Ruth shared these indicators to consider:
- Open and flexible workspace. There is some conversation these days about the downsides to the open office concept. That doesn’t mean it should be eliminated. Office space needs to be flexible to meet the needs of all employees – including spaces for alone time and collaboration.
- Employees who can handle both ambiguity and structure. I like this aspect of innovation. There’s that old saying, “Think Outside the Box.” Well, sometimes the best solutions come from “working within the institution.” It’s about knowing how and when to do both.
- Employees who can be both collaborative and experimental. They can connect internal stakeholders with informed external users. Enough cannot be said about the value of connections and networks. We must be able to listen to our biggest fans and our loudest critics.
- Speed is considered an organizational value. The business world moves way too fast. Employees and organizations must be able to manage change well. Careers and bottom-line results depend on it.
- Employees can take action over striving for a perfect outcome. Ruth said that, at Foundry, “Innovation has a hall pass to perfection.” Employees are allowed to just let it go to market. This is a real paradigm shift in the business world. We see it regularly with technology.
- The goal is to have work that is sustainable within the organization. It makes no business sense to create something the organization cannot maintain. It will only lead to disappointment from customers and employees.
- Employees are trained to be “translators” and “guides.” Successful innovation involves connecting traditional, old school business with the disruptive, bootstrap start-up. With all the talk about disruption in the workplace, it’s nice to see that disruption isn’t being defined as anarchy.
- The organization allocates resources to be a thought leader in their industry. Companies cannot take for granted that they’re a thought leader. They must demonstrate it every single day in their words and in their actions.
- The organization is willing to build strategic alliances (even with competitors) to try new projects. This is one of the exciting parts about innovation. Companies are finding ways to partner and work together, where in the past this would have been forbidden. You’re not turning over company secrets. But new partnerships can lead to new products and services.
With any culture exercise, organizations have to add and adapt with their values. Not all of these will align with your business. But I did find that all of them could provide some creative inspiration to organizations that feel innovation will provide a competitive business advantage and are struggling to introduce those components to their culture.
One parting thought to consider in looking at this list. It’s not enough to just introduce these concepts. Employees will need tools, training, and resources to successfully embrace these ideas. For some organizations, they’ve never done anything like this before. Setting employees up for successful change management is essential. It’s probably the biggest innovation of all.
Image captured by Sharlyn Lauby while attending the Great Place to Work Conference in Austin, TX