Executive coaching

Create an Innovation-Friendly Culture

By Patricia Wheeler

This article was first published in Leading News.Leiding news copy


In my role as executive coach and leadership development consultant, I have noticed a trend in 360 assessments over the past decade.  More and more organisations are naming innovation as a leadership competency that they believe will help drive their current and future success and keep them ahead of (or at least even with) the competition.

I have seen senior leaders derail because they monitored only the traditional markers of success….sales, top line profits….to the exclusion of building an infrastructure and culture which supports innovation.  The challenge is worse in operational, process-driven cultures where the very behaviours that have enabled them to succeed by driving performance and hitting their numbers often run counter to creating the required culture to drive innovation.

Given the increasing need for this competency to stay competitive in a changing world, what are the factors that contribute to building an innovation-friendly culture?  Here are a few points that leaders must address:

1. Define Innovation.

Dr. Lawrence Levin points out that the concept of innovation is “fuzzy” until it is operationally and personally defined by an organisation.  Companies must ask: what specifically does innovation mean to us?  What is the compelling need and what are the obstacles?  To take innovation from “buzzword” to executable strategy, leaders must clearly articulate the challenges and point the way forward…tangibly. How clearly have you and your organisation defined the need and created a business case for innovation?

2. Start at the top.

Whereas good innovations can come from any level of an organisation, a culture of innovation must begin at the most senior levels.  Senior leaders must be the drivers, and understand how they can, at times, serve as a barrier to innovation.  People at all levels must understand the company’s mission, vision, priorities and strategy to decide how and when innovation must be a strong priority.  How well are you and your organisation, from the top down, articulating these areas?

3. Create a culture where calculated risks are embraced.

For many organisations, this is a clear break with tradition.  Leaders must not only allow, but embrace mistakes and the lessons learned from them.  Richard Farson and Ralph Keyes, authors of Whoever Makes the Most Mistakes Wins, praise “failure-tolerant leaders” who help people distinguish between excusable and inexcusable mistakes.

It is uniquely important to define “risk-taking” especially in industries where risk is tangible and managing risk is a priority.  I’ve had numerous experiences coaching safety-conscious leaders to shift from the attitude of “we don’t innovate around here” to “we don’t innovate where safety is concerned without taking all precautions to minimise the risks involved.”  How much does your organisational culture, and how much do you personally, embrace mistakes as an opportunity to improve?

4.  Increase transparency.

To tie innovation to business results, leaders must convey, repeatedly, the company’s strategy, mission and goals, so that they are truly understood at all levels.  Innovation flourishes in an atmosphere of encouraging questions and dialogue where it is okay for people to admit what they don’t know.  Innovating is all about developing a “workable comfort zone” around the unknowns, driven by a compelling business case.

Henry Ford prized finding employees who “had an infinite capacity to not know what can’t be done.”  And remember, transparent communication is not just about what you say; it’s about what they hear.

How do you communicate direction and strategy to your people, and how often do you do “listening checks” to see what part of your message is getting across, and what you need to express differently?

5. Create a culture of teamwork and inclusion.

Silos and turf-guarding are the natural enemies of innovation.  Ditto command-and-control, heavily top-down cultures.  Innovative ideas and perspectives can emerge at any level of the organisation; encourage suggestions, feedback and FeedForward.  Embracing diverse internal and external views is crucial to staying relevant and competitive in our global economy.  In the words of President Harry Truman, “It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.”  How often do you seek the input and views of your colleagues and customers?

Bottom line, each of us can learn and lead those behaviours which drive and sustain innovation.  And, given our ongoing need to adapt and thrive within a changing world, each organisation…and every leader…must look at how to create an innovation-friendly culture which balances past success with evolving demands.


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