Creating an Innovative Company Culture — What Does it Take?

Image Credit: Nikita Kachanovsky

By Arvin Patel, EVP and Chief Intellectual Property Officer, TiVo

“Innovation” is the driving concept of the 21st century business world and a Silicon Valley tech buzzword that has captured the imagination of seemingly every industry. Every company leadership team wants to think that their company has an “innovative” culture. But as with all popular management trends, there are many myths and misconceptions about what it takes to truly create an innovative company culture.

Many assume that innovation just “happens,” as if by magic. They do not have a specific process in place to drive innovation. Others assume that innovation comes from a few lone geniuses — that great ideas can only come from iconoclastic individual thinkers and creative visionaries operating on their own and forging their own path. Other leaders assume that innovation is the result of employees being pitted against each other in a hypercompetitive environment where people are constantly having to defend their ideas and battle for their jobs in a Darwinian “survival of the fittest”.

The truth is actually more complicated. If you really want to create an innovative company culture, don’t believe in the myths of conventional wisdom; instead, follow these research-backed insights.

Innovation is a Process-Driven Choice

Instead of assuming that innovation just “happens”, or waiting for magical inspiration to strike, the best companies have a specific, deliberate process in place to develop and drive their innovation agendas. For example, as described in Harvard Business Review, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has a set of simple questions called the Heilmeier Catechism to evaluate research programs and decide which innovations to pursue:

  • What are you trying to do?
  • How is it done today, and what are the limits of current practice?
  • What is new in this approach and why do you think it will be successful?
  • Who cares? If you are successful, what difference will it make?
  • What are the risks?
  • How much will it cost?
  • How long will it take?
  • What are the mid-term and final “exams” [that will allow you to measure] success?

Innovation can happen through random bursts of inspiration, but most organizations need to plan ahead. Adopting a repeatable process that structures and defines an innovation strategy will help an organization to clarify their thinking, and to prioritize their research and development investments. This in turn will help them hone in on the most valuable innovations that have the best risk-to-reward ratios.

Innovation Thrives With Diversity

Sometimes a “lone genius” will come up with a world-changing idea, but most innovations are more likely to succeed when they are informed by diverse perspectives from many people. Harvard Business Review describes how industrial materials and technology company Corning works ideas through an innovation pipeline — by engaging diverse stakeholders early and often. The more perspectives a company can bring to a project, the more likely they are to refine and vet the final product, identify issues earlier, and possibly find breakthrough solutions that did not occurred to the core members of the product development team.

Diversity also helps to complement the skill sets of an innovation team. Think of the classic example of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak — they each had complementary skills and talents that the other needed to thrive; neither would have been as successful without the other. Is your team diverse enough? Do they have diverse skill sets, diverse perspectives, and diverse representation?

Another great example of innovation as a result of diversity is the story of Richard Montañez, the inventor of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. The son of Mexican immigrants, Richard grew up as a poor kid in a California migrant labor camp. He got his first job as a janitor at a Frito-Lay plant, and that’s where he came up with the idea for a new variety of Cheetos with hot and spicy Mexican-influenced seasonings (inspired by a Mexican street food made with grilled corn and chili powder). Even though he was a low-ranking janitor who had dropped out of high school and could barely read or write, Richard took initiative. He cold-called the CEO of Frito-Lay and asked for a meeting. The CEO eventually agreed to meet with him, and his idea was chosen for product development. It went on to become the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, one of the most successful products ever launched by the company — and Richard has gone on to have a long career as a PepsiCo executive, author, and speaker.

This is an inspiring story, but it also raises the question of how much talent and human potential is being overlooked or is simply falling through the cracks. How many other Richard Montañezes might there be at your company? Are you doing enough to make sure that great ideas can come from anywhere in your organization, and that every voice can be heard?

Innovation Requires Collaboration

Another, sometimes harmful, innovation myth is that innovation only results from fierce competition and that people must be pitted against each other so that the toughest fighters win. The truth is, most great ideas are not the result of Darwinian combat; instead they are nurtured and refined with open communication, teamwork, and the thoughtful input of dozens or even hundreds of collaborators.

In a review of Walter Isaacson’s book “The Innovators,” James Surowiecki writes: “the organizations that have done the best at innovating have typically been those that have relied on 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.’”

When you build a culture of open communication, collaboration, and trust, people will be more able to support each other, bring their best ideas, and generate solutions creatively from multiple angles and perspectives. Whether companies are trying to develop the next game-changing digital technology or make a delicious new variety of salted snacks, the principles are the same. Innovation should not be a solitary mad scientist’s lab or a ruthlessly competitive gladiator arena, it should be a community garden — where everyone can share their gifts and enjoy the abundance they create.

An inventor and leading voice on #entertainment and #innovation. COO, Invention Investment Funds @Intellectual Ventures