A step-by-step guide to building a culture of innovation

There are no sure-fire ways to achieving a culture of innovation, but here are some tips businesses should consider.

Innovation is probably the buzzword that has been exhausted by every organisation during weekly team pow-wows. In fact, I’ve heard that “digital transformation” has taken over. Whether it’s favoured or not, innovation is here to stay and given its fluidity, will continue evolving—sometimes at breakneck speed, sometimes ever so subtly it’s hard to pinpoint what exactly are the changes.

So what does innovation really means? Traditionally, it is the process of introducing new methods, ideas, or products. Seems simple enough to grasp. However, in today’s context, innovation is more than just having an idea. It’s the ability to make the idea tangible. It’s to create solutions that address the needs of the society, be it a customer or a community.

Current state of innovation in Asia Pacific

The need to innovate is crucial today, especially so in Asia Pacific, where we see governments stepping in to create national frameworks and drive investments to boost this.

For instance, the recent Singapore Budget 2018 announcement will see targeted initiatives such as the Productivity Solutions Grant rolled out to encourage businesses to innovate across the entire value chain, be it through buying or creating new solutions. Along with other initiatives focusing on empowering the workforce such as the Capability Transfer Programme and Tech Skills Accelerator (TeSA), it is apparent that the government only has one thing in mind—to get its people innovating.

Besides having eight Asian cities making the top 10 list in business confidence in digital environment, Asia Pacific is also the most active region for new IPOs, making us the next business hub of the world. As such, Asia Pacific businesses cannot afford to be complacent nor slowdown if they are aiming to tap onto the economic opportunities that this region presents. Everyone has heard the horror stories of organisations who failed to innovate. Conglomerates such as Borders, Compaq, Kodak, and Toys “R” Us who had once enjoyed enviable successes succumbed to their inevitable deaths due to their failure to adapt to the changing industry trends.

Setting the foundations

While it is heartening to see more companies realising the importance of innovation, how can they go about getting started? There are no sure-fire ways to guarantee a culture of innovation, but here are some tips that businesses should adopt to inculcate innovation into their organisations.

  1. Innovate across all business units

When we gather to look for a solution to a problem, more often than not we seek out our peers or direct team. This itself is a problem as we are speaking to those within the same headspace. In fact, one of the most common problems when it comes to driving innovation across the organisation is inclusivity.

Organisations often fail to encourage cross-departmental collaboration, omitting the chance of bringing a fresh perspective to the table. A broader innovation process sees employees from multiple departments brainstorming, each bringing a deep knowledge in different arenas.

  1. Celebrate failure in a safe space

Another reason that businesses fail to promote innovation comes down to fear of taking risks. Many businesses prefer to take the well-trodden path and stay safe. Innovation inevitably comes with some degree of failure, but the long-term rewards are often worth it. Did you know that research shows 26% of firms in Singapore had a failed digital project in the last 2 years, with an average cost of S$788,354 per company? 

The Dyson brand would not be where it is right now if it was not for the 5,271 prototypes that failed before founder James Dyson found a vacuum that worked. It’s safe to say that a culture of innovation will not exist without a culture of risk. Employees need to believe they are free from reprisals if their ideas don’t succeed.

  1. Equip people with the right tools

We don’t mean Ping-Pong tables, bean bag chairs, or one-off hackathons. The right tools may come in different forms such as innovation strategies and investments. By allowing managers to make small investments, employees are more encouraged to test their ideas on a smaller scale. This makes it easier for the management to shelve or boost whichever initiative that gained traction.

  1. Incentivise to encourage innovation

While it is probably easier to stick to the protocols in measuring ROI, a leader has to remember that new initiatives cannot be judged by the same traditional metrics. While employees are told to be innovative, their performance goals and compensation packages don’t create the incentives to do so.

Despite the market shift in emphasis from annual performance reviews to continuous feedback, most companies aren’t there yet. Less than half have an established process for ongoing feedback. Therefore, it is crucial that leaders create an environment where senior management provides air cover to those willing to embark on innovation challenges.

About the author

Adam Judd

Adam Judd, Senior Vice President of Asia-Pacific, China, and Japan at F5 Networks

Change starts from the top

It is easy for an organisation to be lulled into a false sense that they are innovating because they have all the initiatives above set in place. However, business leaders need to remember that an innovative culture is not something that can be bought nor taught. At the end of the day, leaders have to understand that only they have the power to change the culture of their companies. An innovative culture is created daily by what, they themselves as leaders, punish, recognise, celebrate and reward. 

Essentially, what we are trying to achieve at the end of the day is to inculcate the culture of innovation into the organisation so that it is sustainable. Frameworks and incentives can only go so far but innovation has to be ingrained into everyone’s DNA as we strive to be better humans.

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