Nurturing A Culture of Innovation

Innovation_Jacinta Quah_high performance coach

In Shanghai this week, I’m amazed by the continuous progress and transforming skyline of this vibrant city. Reflecting back when I was first based here in early 2000’s, cash was the main medium of transactions. Today, most restaurants are taking orders and payments via phone. Or should I say, the entire life – from waking up to commuting to work, connecting with colleagues & friends, making purchases, running errands - seems to all run on the phone! “Everything” is connected - online.

The word innovation comes to mind. Not just the big digital displays and buildings in Pudong area, but the ingenuity of the people to “innovate” with what they have to thrive though the changing face of the city.

In the corporate setting, leadership ability to foster innovation is critical to the business long-term success. And nurturing an innovative culture, is crucial to engaging our increasing multi-generational workforce, especially the millennials. I doubt any leaders would disagree with the importance of innovation. However, how many are actually doing it, fostering innovation?

In his article “Accelerating Innovation with Leadership,” Bill Gates wrote that the best leaders have the ability to do both the urgent things that demand attention today and at the same time lay the groundwork for innovation that will pay dividends for decades. The second part - is often where leaders trip up. Some of the red flags that a leader may be too short-term focused and potentially stifling innovation:

1. Questioning employee ideas constantly – skeptical about any suggestions that may be “wasting” previous time and resources on “pet” projects. (read: medium to long-term strategic initiatives that have limited short-term returns).

2. Not listening – selectively tuning out what their employees have to say that doesn’t align with the direction the leader already decided on. They ask for inputs while they’ve already made up their mind.

3. Poor communication – lack of clear vision, team mission & goals beyond the quarterly business scorecard metrics. Communication is more like instruction than guidance.

4. View any mistakes as bad – in the Tech world, we like to say fail fast, learn fast. But then these leaders view any first sign of mistakes as a reflection of the employee’s capability vs a valuable learning experience to inform the next iteration.

The research of CIIT (Centre for Innovation through IT) stated:

An organization’s culture plays a massive role upon innovation. What matters is how strong the leadership is, so that it develops an innovative culture where the environment acts as an incentive to communications and the sharing of knowledge across boundaries.

To nurture a truly innovative culture:

  1. Invite the customer to have a seat at the table (symbolically in your internal meetings). Making sure your priorities and decisions are focusing on improving customer’s outcomes while meeting internal operating metrics

  2. Stay curious just a little longer. Ask open-ended questions and pause to actively listen. Stay curious a little longer before dispensing advice or solutions.

  3. Ask What Else

  4. Indulge What If

  5. Collaborate and build links across functions.

  6. Cross-fertilizing your innovative business impulses across organizational boundaries.

  7. Kindling your employees’ thirst for knowledge and channelizing their passion to develop new or improved approaches

Culture is the soil from which seeds grow. Harbouring innovation is something that has to stem organically from within your organization. And leadership is the key to nurturing an innovative culture that enables the business to grow and thrive.