Creating a Strong and Sustainable Innovation Culture
Steve Jobs, one of the greatest innovators of our time, famously said, “Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have…It’s about the people you have, how you’re led, and how much you get it.”
Jobs’ quote is one that I work to embody every day in my role as CEO of MetricStream. As the leader of an organization that was once a young startup, looking for ways to identify prospective customers while also keeping up with Governance, Risk, and Compliance (GRC) trends, I have witnessed first-hand how beneficial an innovative culture can be to sustained business growth.
Here are a few things that I have learned about how to build an innovative culture throughout my professional life:
Establish a clear vision that inspires and excites
Bill Gates had a precise goal—“a computer on every desk and in every home.” Jeff Bezos wanted to make Amazon “Earth’s most customer-centric company.” Twitter’s aim was to be “the pulse of the planet.”
None of these tech powerhouses use the word “innovation,” yet their visions are designed to ignite people’s imagination and passion—the first step towards creating an innovative culture.
Examine your vision. Is it strong and inspiring? Or is it prone to tired and over-used phrases like “to produce high quality products” or “to be the leader in the industry”? If it is, take a fresh approach. Understand the role that innovation plays across your organization—right from your core values to the performance of your day-to-day activities. Then develop a vision that reflects that knowledge, and is aligned with your business goals.
Empower people to innovate
Many employees have plenty of ideas, but most are rarely given the resources and encouragement to follow through. An innovative organization empowers its employees to challenge the status quo, and think differently. Giving a sense of empowerment to employees encourages a bottom-up stream of ideas from the entire organization, providing all employees with a sense of ownership in the forward direction and growth of the company.
When we at MetricStream were soliciting ideas to grow our online portal for industry professionals, ComplianceOnline.com, one of the team members proposed in-person events, leveraging our online success. He identified the risks and opportunities, and we funded the trial, and let him run it. It turned out to be a successful growth strategy.
Netflix, the on-demand Internet streaming media provider, has built its culture around “freedom and responsibility”—avoiding titles, empowering employees to make important decisions, allowing them to take vacations often (“take big vacations and come back inspired to find big ideas”), work at home if required, and say what they think even if it is controversial. Such an open and flexible culture has been extremely conducive to innovation.
Encourage calculated risk taking
A popular Dilbert comic strip read, “Large corporations welcome innovations and individualism in the same way the dinosaurs welcomed large meteors.”
The truth is that companies don’t want to take many risks—especially in today’s tough economic environment. But there can’t be innovation without risk. In my experience with customers worldwide, I have seen companies take risks that paid off. But I’ve also seen companies take risks that failed. I’ve learned that if you want to thrive on risk, you need to have a well thought-out risk management strategy. Understand every risk that you take in the name of innovation. Assess its impact. Determine if it falls within your risk appetite. Then manage and monitor it effectively.
We took a major risk as a company when we decided to go against the standard approach of providing narrow software solutions. We instead built a broad base of solutions focused on helping companies manage risk effectively. Experts repeatedly told us to focus our solutions only on one area—be it audits, SOX compliance, or risk management. But we fundamentally believed that the market needed integrated solutions across all these areas in order to truly manage enterprise risk. We bet the company on this approach, and it paid off.
Reward and recognize people and teams
Many companies reward innovation, but few recognize failure. Those that do understand that failure is not something to fear, but learn from. Grey Advertising, for instance, gives out a “Heroic Failure” award to people who take a big risk, while SurePayroll has a “Best New Mistake” award for people who learn valuable business lessons from their mistakes.
Encourage people to act on their ideas. Replace the fear of failure with the joy of exploration, experimentation, and learning. Remember that some of the greatest innovators failed more times than they succeeded. The trick is to fail fast, and learn faster.
Sustain the culture of innovation
Supporting innovation is one thing. Sustaining it is a whole different ball game. This is something that Google, for example, is famous for. Take the recently announced “Project Glass”—a program to develop augmented reality goggles that will display information and interact with the Internet via natural voice commands. That’s just the latest addition to a list of several innovations that include Gmail and Chrome, not to mention the world’s most popular search engine.
Continuous innovation is the hallmark of a successful company, especially in a world where market demands are constantly evolving and the competition is growing fiercer day by day. At MetricStream, we strive to keep reinventing ourselves. We’re constantly working to identify new ways to communicate with our customers and provide them with the best GRC solutions possible. We never settle and are always looking for opportunities to differentiate.
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Most companies want to be innovative. Many claim to be. But the truly great ones have demonstrated that only when you embed innovation into the very heart of everything you do can you propel new growth and revolutionize markets.