HR Management & Compliance, Talent

3 Key Elements to Create an Innovative Culture at Your Company

“Innovation” has become one of the most important buzzwords in 21st-century business. Every company wants to be an “innovative” company nowadays. But just as with so many other buzzwords, sometimes a trend becomes so popular that it almost becomes meaningless.

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If we want our companies to truly create “innovative” cultures, we need to reexamine what innovation really means and what it takes to create innovation. Here are a few research-backed insights for what it really takes to build an innovative culture at your company.

Innovation Is a Choice

Many business leaders assume that innovation just “happens,” as if by a magical lightning bolt of inspiration. But this is a myth. In reality, the most innovative organizations create a specific process for developing an innovation agenda, which includes setting priorities and managing risks.

For example, at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), when deciding which research projects to pursue, they ask a few simple questions:

  • What are you trying to do?
  • How is it done today?
  • What are the limits of current practice?
  • What about this approach is new?
  • Why do you think it will be successful?
  • Who cares? If this innovation succeeds, what difference will it make?
  • What are the risks?
  • How much will it cost?
  • How long will it take?
  • What are the midterm and final “exams” that will allow you to measure success?

Sometimes, innovation does happen spontaneously. But more often, innovative organizations actually choose to innovate, with advance planning and a prioritized process of where and how to invest their resources.

Just as “hope is not a strategy” for other facets of life and work, just waiting and hoping for innovation to happen are not going to get results. Instead, you can choose to be an innovative organization by adopting repeatable processes, defining your innovation strategy, clarifying your innovation goals, and prioritizing your investments based on the expected ratios of risk to reward.

Innovation Requires Diversity

Another misconception about innovation is that innovation is always the product of “lone geniuses.” The image of innovators being solitary “mad scientists,” cackling in their labs while creating the future, is popular. But the truth about innovation is more complicated: Innovations are more successful when they are developed in the spirit of diversity, with diverse stakeholders getting involved early in the process.

Harvard Business Review describes how at Corning, an industrial materials and technology company, the product development team engages with diverse stakeholders frequently—and early—while developing ideas in the innovation pipeline. When a company can bring many diverse perspectives to a project, it is more likely to be able to create a final product that is more vetted and refined. Having a diverse team can help work out the bugs and even create breakthrough concepts that might never have been imagined by the usual members of the team.

One great example of how including diverse perspectives can improve your innovation is the story of Richard Montañez, the inventor of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos®. Richard was the son of Mexican immigrants and grew up in poverty in a migrant labor camp in rural California. After dropping out of high school and working as a farm laborer in the fields, Montañez got his first “corporate” job at Frito-Lay as a janitor. While mopping the floors at the snack factory, he came up with a homemade recipe for a new flavor of Cheetos®—made with spicy Mexican-influenced ingredients and inspired by Mexican street food.

Montañez seized the initiative. Even though he was one of the lowest-ranking employees at the company, with no formal experience in business or product development, and was nearly illiterate, Montañez cold-called the Frito-Lay CEO and asked to meet with him to discuss the idea.

The CEO agreed to hear his idea, and it was eventually selected to be developed into a new Cheetos product. Montañez’s recipe went on to be known as Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, one of Frito-Lay’s best-selling products. Montañez went on to have a successful career as a PepsiCo executive, an inspiring author, and a motivational speaker.

Imagine what would have happened if Frito-Lay had not made the effort to listen to diverse perspectives and take a chance on a janitor’s idea! How many other organizations are missing out on great ideas and overlooking their people’s talent and potential? How many Richard Montañezes are there at your company who are going undiscovered and unheard? The most innovative companies make a proactive effort to ensure that every voice is heard and that great ideas can be uncovered from all levels of the organization.

Innovation Comes from Generous Collaboration

Another myth about innovation, which is perhaps the most harmful myth of all, is that innovation is the result of fierce competition within the company: People should be ranked and fired based on how they compare with their in-house colleagues; people should be forced to compete intensely at all times so that the toughest competitors win and everyone else gets eliminated and left behind.

The truth is, the most innovative companies are not engaging their employees in Darwinian competition; instead, they are nurturing their people and promoting an atmosphere of generosity, with helpful communication, supportive teamwork, and thoughtful input along the way.

As described in a review of Walter Isaacson’s book The Innovators, the most innovative organizations rely upon “strong teams made up of diverse thinkers from lots of different disciplines. These teams didn’t try to quash independent thinking; they welcomed it.” As Isaacson puts it, “Rugged individualism and the desire to form associations were totally compatible, even complementary, especially when it involved creating things collaboratively.”

An innovative culture shouldn’t look like a vicious gladiator arena or a solitary mad scientist’s lab; it should look more like a supportive, collaborative classroom where people can learn from each other, bounce ideas off of each other, and trust each other, with a spirit of generosity and sharing. When people trust each other and are willing to communicate openly, the most fruitful collaboration can result.

Arvin Patel is the EVP and Chief Intellectual Property Officer at TiVo, where he’s responsible for driving new innovations, partnerships, patenting, and licensing. He oversees the growth and integration of strategic partnerships with some of the world’s largest media and entertainment companies. Holding more than 50 patents worldwide, Patel has been named a Top 100 Lawyer in California by the American Society of Legal Advocates since 2013.