The National Science Foundation released a disturbing study recently that revealed that only nine percent of American companies engaged in any product or process innovation during the three-year study period (2006-08).
Frankly, I’m not surprised with the near absence of corporate innovation because I see so few companies that encourage a culture of innovation.
Too many CEOs focus exclusively on improving financial metrics – increasing earnings and keeping a tight control over costs. Few understand their corporate value can be linked directly to their embrace of innovation and their capacity to constantly renew themselves.
That’s exactly what Apple has been doing, and its devotion to designing new customer experiences centered around technology has contributed to a 1,300 percent rise in its stock price in the past 10 years and a market capitalization that exceeds that of Microsoft.
Apple keeps innovating because it has intentionally created a culture of innovation. The company’s commitment to design and innovation is built into its DNA and enables it to foster, create, and execute radical ideas and remain in a perpetual state of reinvention.
Commitment to design and innovation is not the purview exclusively of large companies. Small companies actually have the capacity to move faster and more nimbly than their larger competitors, and it’s significantly easier to adopt cultural imperatives in a small company than a large one.
So, what are the essential cultural elements that your company needs to adopt to encourage innovation?
Purpose – Business leaders who can articulate a corporate vision with the right language can inspire their employees to perform heroic feats. Companies such as Apple, Nike, Amazon, Herman Miller, and 3M are all design and innovation leaders that inspire their employees with clear corporate visions of who they are, why they’re important, and where they’re headed.
They don’t inspire with challenges of nine percent top line growth or the extension of an existing product line. Their vision is much broader: They want to change the world in their own unique ways. And they believe they are the agents for that change.
Challenge – You can’t gain a competitive advantage from doing business as usual in the same way that virtually every one of your competitors operates. Innovators and design thinkers create new solutions to problems that other companies are unwilling or unable to address. Take a look at every touch point in your organization and ask yourself if each one is delightful and memorable for your customers.
Why should calls to help centers be frustrating? Why don’t you have instructional videos posted for every one of your products? How can your packaging be reduced and improved? You’re surrounded by challenges if you’re brave enough to take them on. And when you succeed, your corporate differences will be clearly defined.
Encouragement – Leaders in innovative companies encourage their employees to try new things and to test new ideas despite the certainty that taking on challenging projects will inevitably lead to some failures.
Apple had monumental flops with the Lisa and the Newton. Nike had divisive fair trade issues to overcome. Even legendary 3M went through a lean period of innovation when its focus drifted in the early 2000s.
But like all successful design companies, those who emerge with the greatest successes are the ones that encourage, embrace, and celebrate failure. They just ensure that they failed fast and learn lessons from each disappointment. Failure expands knowledge, builds courage, reveals your strengths and weaknesses, and ultimately makes success a little sweeter.
John Heaney’s professional experience has centered around marketing, branding, customer experience design, strategic communications, and business development. His current professional endeavors are focused on developing strategic digital marketing programs that integrate compelling social media components. His perspectives are captured on his blog.