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3 steps to encourage a culture of innovation in our workplace

Ivan Lim
Ivan Lim

February 10, 2021

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Photo by AbsolutVision on Unsplash

When we compare the list of companies in the first edition of the Fortune 500 in 1955 to the list in 2019, we see only 52 companies on both lists. The rapid turnover of the Fortune 500 is indicative of a dynamic and consumer-centric economy in which market disruptions constantly change the playing grounds on which we compete. 

There are whole lists of reasons why companies should innovate, and they all boil down to one simple fact - be innovative or be obsolete - which we all already know. The problem is, in the process of innovating, companies tend to look at innovation only as the creation of new ideas by special innovation divisions and neglect the importance of an innovative culture. To truly maximise the advantages that innovation brings, we also need our teams to make it part of their routine and job to think outside of the box. Only then will workplace innovation survive beyond the generation of a few novel ideas to become a strategic mindset that influences every part of the company. 

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#1 Safe Space

Providing a safe space for staff to explore novel solutions that can tackle difficult problems faced by the business. It’s important that your employees don’t feel like their jobs are at risk if they pitch a solution that isn’t perfect. Organisations can consider ‘flattening’ their hierarchy by starting “Learning Sessions” that allow managers to learn from their subordinates, normalising the idea of peer-learning within organisations. In learning sessions, no idea and no question is too silly, and the team gathers to share new or interesting ideas that allow the whole team to learn something. When employees finally gain confidence that learning sessions are a safe space to communicate ideas and thoughts, it opens the door to innovation and new approaches to the status quo. 

Steve Jobs once said “It doesn't make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” When you are hiring the best and brightest, allow your employees the liberty and safe space to explore novel solutions, and perhaps consider rewarding them for it. Nothing kills creativity quicker than the fear of failure, so as quickly as we reward successes, we should celebrate failures too for having been learning opportunities. 

Sony's first home video game console - the Playstation

#2 Intrapreneurship

Intrapreneurship involves allowing your employees to think like an entrepreneur within your organisation. You can encourage a spirit of intrapreneurship within your organisation by taking small steps such as giving employees opportunities to pitch their ideas to decision-makers, allowing them a safe space to generate ideas, and provide support to them to test their ideas in the form of time, money, or any other requirements.

In the late 1980s, Sony was focussed on audio and video equipment, and was working with Nintendo to produce an attachment for the soon-to-be-released Super Nintendo game. Sony management then felt that video games were just a passing fad but Ken Kutaragi, an electronics engineer, managed to convince his bosses to allow him to spearhead the project. Ultimately the project fell through due to disagreements on ownership of the technology, and Kutaragi took the opportunity to advocate for the development of a video game console of their own. Luckily, Sony management agreed to allow his team to continue working on a video game console, something wildly out of their traditional businesses and in 1994, Sony released their first ‘Playstation’, which sold more than 100 million consoles in the 10 years that it was available. In granting an employee the leeway to explore ideas outside of their core business, Sony created one of its most profitable arms in Sony Computer Entertainment. 

Encourage your employees to bring their ideas to life by empowering them to take the lead on ideas that they are passionate about, and who knows, that might just be the start of your own Playstation idea. 

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#3 Make innovation a part of your daily routine

William McKnight of 3M coined the term fifteen percent time, which was a policy that allowed employees to spend fifteen percent of their time at work thinking about ideas that didn’t have to do with their work. Employees were free to daydream, chat with peers or experiment with new ideas - all of which contributed to the innovative culture at their workplace and led to the creation of up to 50,000 new product lines and 22,800 patents. Years later, Google would copy and one-up this idea with their “20% Project”, which is a similar idea except employees can take 20% of their time on their experiments. Well-known products that came from this include Gmail and AdSense.

We have to proactively engage our teams to pursue innovative ideas that excite them, ideas that could challenge the status quo. The 15% culture grants employees the freedom to think laterally, beyond the scope of their day-to-day work, and that fosters innovation and renews interest in their work - things we know are critical to the development of an innovative culture. 

It’s normal to want to remain at the status quo because the status quo is comfortable. But in a dynamic world, the lazy get left behind. In order for us to remain relevant in a changing world, we need to constantly innovate and climb out of the box we have put ourselves in. It doesn’t even have to be big leaps of innovation - even small steps that encourage an innovative culture are steps in the right direction. 

Binomial is a Singapore-based innovation and creative consultancy. If you need help with jump-starting innovation in your organisation, whether it is building an innovative culture or helping to identify the next revolution for your business, get in touch! 

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