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Think outside the buzzword: Cultivate real innovation in your company

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You’ve probably heard the story of the Post-It Note—a surprise success born from an earlier accident that’s now an iconic global product.

What you may not know is that the Post-It Note – created by Arthur Fry at 3M in 1974 – was possible because of the company’s “15 percent time.” The unique program gives employees a paid opportunity to explore their own ideas—to chase that wild hair on the company dime.

Over the decades, that simple program has formed the backbone of the innovative powerhouse we know today. Kurt Beinlich, a technical director for 3M, elaborates in Fast Company:

“It’s one of the things that sets 3M apart as an innovative company, by sticking to that culture of giving every one of our employees the ability to follow their instincts to take advantage of opportunities for the company … It’s really shaped what and who 3M is.”

Of course, creating your own innovative culture doesn’t require something so formal. Innovation doesn’t have to mean a new product or a new technology, and it’s not just another corporate buzzword, despite its overuse. At its core, it’s a mindset you and your employees must embrace. The question is, are you ready for it?

First, evaluate your culture

It’s important to remember that innovation isn’t one of those “If you build it, they will come” scenarios. You can’t copy and paste 3M’s program or some mantra from Google and expect it to stick. Every company is different, and your specific culture has to be prepared to welcome a mindset of innovation.

David Neff, co-author of “IGNITE: Setting Your Organization’s Culture on Fire with Innovation,” writes:

“Take a close look at your organizational culture, and you may find it to be a shaky foundation that needs some renovation. It usually comes down to a combination of how the company handles failures, how it celebrates successes and how transparent it is throughout the process. If employees or job candidates sense these factors are incongruent with innovation, they’ll hesitate before signing up.”

Take an honest look at your company’s values: What groundwork needs to be done before your company moves to a more innovative mindset?

3 steps to cultivating innovation

So, how do you start? What are some small ways you can build a more innovative company? How can innovative thinking drive your overall business strategy?

Start by rinsing the phrase, “This is the way we’ve always done it,” from your vernacular, and get to work on the following steps:

So, how do you start? What are some small ways you can build a more innovative company? How can innovative thinking drive your overall business strategy?

  1. Create a safe place for trial, error, failure and success – Just as the top rule of brainstorming is, “No idea is a bad idea,” apply the same concept to your workplace in general. When people don’t fear retribution for a failed idea – when they know they work in a team excited to build upon each other’s ideas and visions – they’ll be more creative with their thoughts and deeds. This sense of freedom is where innovative ideas are born.
  2. Hire for innovation – Even as you’re creating an internal culture of innovation, be sure you’re bringing that mindset to interviews. Obviously, you have to hire for certain hard skills, but find ways to ask questions that shed light on a candidate’s soft skills, particularly how they work in collaborative environments and how they’ve built off the ideas of others. Ask references how the candidate works with a team. Pay attention to how the candidate shares past successes: Look for the person who not only highlights their skills but also shares credit with others when it’s due. And, most important, look for curious people—someone with a desire to understand the parts of something and how they work and fit together.
  3. Remember that innovation can come from anywhere – Don’t assume disruptive or innovative ideas have to come from your leaders, scientists or tech folks. The various perspectives of everyone at your company – from the CEO to the custodian – all see the business from different angles, which can lead to new ways of looking at things. Be sure you’re providing a mechanism for employees to share their ideas to the larger team in an environment of openness and inclusivity.

After all, unless employees – all employees – feel like they’ll be heard, innovation will be stifled, as Aaron Agius writes in Entrepreneur:

“If you espouse innovation, but then fail to act on any of the ideas presented to you, employees will get discouraged. After all, why put any effort into brainstorming new concepts when they’ll never see the light of day?”

Make your company ‘Innovation Central’

You know the challenges facing businesses today, and company leaders must adapt innovative strategies to not only survive but also flourish. It’s time to look at your business: What’s one thing – when done differently – that would make a significant difference? By implementing a culture of innovation with your company, you’ll be better prepared to tackle your toughest business challenges.

The status quo is no longer sustainable, so now may be the best time to adopt a mindset of innovation, one that can help you define and implement meaningful ideas with real-world impact.

You may not create the next Post-It Note, but you may discover that the secret to your future success has been hiding in plain sight all along.

Patrick Shore is vice president of innovation at Veracity Consulting, a tech consulting team of problem-solvers and truth-tellers who deliver customized IT solutions for commercial and government clients across the U.S. Share your thoughts on Facebook or Twitter @engageveracity.