Business Rx: 10 tips for fostering a culture of innovation

We’ve been hearing a lot about the role of entrepreneurship and innovation in jump-starting our struggling economy. As an entrepreneur, you need to be constantly assessing your company and thinking about ways to improve and innovate. To do this, focus on fostering a genuine culture of innovation within your venture (or from your role within a larger organization) that can help create new market opportunities and drive new revenue streams. Over the years, I’ve pinpointed these strategies and truths that lead to effective innovation:

Innovation, like the spreading of fertilizer, is messy, lumpy, smelly, expensive and unpredictable. Innovation rarely happens in a neat and sequential fashion. Imposing too many rules or protocols will retard or overly restart the process. There must be a commitment to spread the fertilizer frequently, consistently, and across the entire field, not just once in a while to pet projects. The results are not always what you would predict or expect. To create an environment that supports innovation, set specific goals and create processes that can allow your organization to meet them.

Embrace the headless tiger. People don’t stay with companies forever, and the culture must be prepared to innovate with or without their day-to-day presence. Team-driven innovation will create leaders at all levels that can sustain, perpetuate and strengthen the founder’s vision long after he or she steps down. Investments in training, commitments to empowerment and delegation, and the development of meaningful succession plans are all critical elements of this process.

The only thing that is certain is change. In our fast-paced, technology-driven world, the unknown has become the only real thing we can count on. New versions, new editions, new models, new flavors, new packaging, new styles, new pricing models and new distribution channels are coming out so fast that many of us are afraid that our newest gadget will become obsolete before we even leave the mall.

Leave the safety of the cave. Our primal ancestors understood that there were real predators waiting for them outside the safety of their caves. New missions and new goals bring out that hard-wired DNA memory of the initial fear of the unknown.

Avoid cynics and naysayers. There is a major difference between cynics and skeptics. Skeptics tend to be healthy contributors to the innovation process because they ask all the right questions, even if they start with a negative bias. Creativity needs both a yin and a yang to make a perfect circle, but it does not need someone throwing cold water on the process.

Blaze new trails. Don’t just travel where no one has gone before — create a new trail that others can follow.

Trust in yourself and your team. People don’t innovate without self-confidence, and teams can’t perform without trust. Earned praise can be a great motivator for your team, and building trust can fuel creativity and innovation.

Empower people to let down their guards. Give your team a safe environment where they are free to brainstorm, discuss and explore new ideas without ridicule or too much negativity. Once the idea has been massaged, shaped and restated, the more burdensome tasks of execution, adoption and sustainability begin.

Hey, who interrupted my disruption? Don’t wait for creativity and innovation to grow gradually — disrupt the status quo. The change can be radical or transformational or just a reset and reboot of top priorities and budget allocations and reward systems.

World Series are won with singles and doubles. As exciting as home runs may be, most baseball titles are determined by consistent hits, especially at clutch points in the game. The same holds true for innovation.

Andrew J. Sherman teaches courses on business growth, capital formation and entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business and he is a partner in the Washington law offices of Jones Day.

 
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