If you are a leader tasked with delivering innovation, your job is to guide your team or organization to discover and develop new ideas in order to deliver value to clients and customers. This note serves to remind you of some key elements you can put in place as you and your team prepare to do amazing things in the days ahead.


Welcome All Ideas, from Everyone

First, appreciate ideas for their own sake. It’s a good sign. Why? It tells you people are thinking, it tells you that they are invested in accomplishing results. Now ideas may be great, good, bad, or even stupid but that’s of secondary importance. Ideas are dynamic.

You can influence the quality of ideas showing up within the team by taking certain measures. We will see some of those below. Again, bad ideas in one context can become great ones in another. Ask everyone to pitch in, not just as an assignment but as a habit. 


Plant Idea Seeds

You do this by cultivating a culture and work environment where learning is centerstage, where it is celebrated. This is how to shape the ideas coming from your team. Support professional learning opportunities as well as non-work-related learning experiences.

You can employ courses, workshops, books, events, mentoring sessions. Do what you can to expose your people to the best learning experiences. You are seeding their minds with data and information that will birth new ideas and idea connections that will bring forth innovation.


Create A Healthy Environment

Foster a culture of empathy, mutual respect, and collaboration. Lead by relating to people as individuals, not just employees. This requires more effort than treating them as contracted employees earning salaries or commissions, but it creates important connections, to varying degrees.

Two things happen when you do this: 1, the connection you create leads to better communication, and understanding of roles and expectations. 2, You set a model for communication and interaction among the team, the trust and mutual respect spread across the team creating a web of engagement and goodwill. Remember, an idea may come from one person, but the resulting innovation is usually due to teamwork.


Applaud Innovation — and Effort and Improvement

Recognize and reward innovation whether it be the huge, revenue-generating idea or a cost-saving one as simple as reducing power consumption or paper or toner usage. In the same vein, recognize and reward effort and risk-taking, too — within the borders of the organization’s objectives, ethical or regulatory requirements. As Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson said in The One Minute Manager, “Catch them doing something right.”

Conversely, avoid blaming and shaming, whether in private or in public. Where someone falls short, guide them to learn from such events, emphasize learning from such events. They are opportunities for both individual and organizational learning and growth.


Allow Change

Many leaders solicit ideas, even celebrate them, and yet prefer to maintain the status quo. The joy isn’t in the applause, people embrace the call to innovate because they want to see actual results and are frustrated when they don’t get the support they expect.

What do you do with the ideas people bring to you? How many ideas have you run with or investigated in the last year? Allow change. Take them as experiments, small bets with support and resources within the bounds of the organization’s budget. Who knows, they just might turn out to be the future of your organization.


Communication plays a huge role in innovation. 

It also involves listening. Communicate the team’s or organization’s vision and goals and be open to contributions from the un-usual suspects: seek out perspectives and opinions from the quietest people, from the rebels, from non-management staff.

Create a system for eliciting feedback on the organization’s most important goals and aspirations from the rank and file. A suggestion box might be useful, or an email address, or an app. Choose what works best for your organization.

So, remember to welcome all ideas, promote a learning culture and a healthy working environment, celebrate innovation and effort, and be willing to support the new ideas for innovation.

When Satya Nadella became Microsoft CEO in 2014, he embraced a mission to transform the organization’s culture from one of infighting to a culture of collaboration. Where the organization was previously depicted as a group of warring factions, employees are now rewarded for helping their colleagues to succeed. That culture shift has helped Microsoft to chart a path of success. Microsoft has now overtaken Apple as the world’s most valuable company with a valuation of over $2.5 trillion.


Culture is Critical

In a survey of executives by researchers at Duke University, 92% admitted that improving a firm’s culture would improve its value, but only 16% felt that they had an ideal corporate culture. (Link) An overwhelming majority of leaders agreed that their culture was preventing them from achieving their business goals. 

If that is the case, what then stops companies from changing their culture to help them achieve their goals? The reason might be similar to the reason most of us struggle with habits. Trying to change an organization’s culture could be complicated and resource-consuming. But like personal habits, an organization’s culture can also change with conscious and consistent effort.


Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast (and Lunch?)

An organization will make progress or decline in line with its culture. A company’s culture refers to the prevailing values in an organization, the type of behavior that gets rewarded, or as any employee might say, “this is how we do things.”

An organization’s culture may help or hinder it from reaching its target. It is possible for an organization to adopt some seemingly rock-solid organizational strategy and yet fail when it comes to execution. Among other variables, a key reason may be because acting towards realizing the goal of the strategy is in conflict with the way work is done. 

On the other hand, a company’s culture may help it to prosper. Harvard professors Philip Kotter and James Heskett studied 200 companies to find out how each company’s culture affected its long-term economic performance. They discovered that “those companies with strong corporate cultures that facilitate adaptation to a changing world are associated with strong financial results.” 

What does it mean for a company to have a “strong culture”? A strong culture is one that highly values people, that is, employees, customers, and owners. It is also a culture that encourages leadership from everyone in the organization. The authors called these performance-enhancing cultures. The values embedded in the culture made it easy for employees to fulfill the organization’s strategy. 


Examples of Strong Cultures

1. Cisco

Ranked as #1 on the 2021 list of Great Place to Work, this is a quote from an employee:

“The attention that the executive team pays to the health and welfare of the surrounding community is extraordinary. Company leadership works to ensure that the company is an active member of the communities in which we operate and are quick to provide resources to support the most vulnerable. I also am heartened by our CEO’s focus on social justice issues, specificly [sic] those in support of the Black community. Before it became en vogue to do so, he was vested in listening and taking authentic strategic, meaningful actions.” (Link)

2. Zenefits (Human Resource Software as a Service Company)

Amidst a crisis, Zenefits’ interim CEO David Sacks announced a change in the culture based on three core values:

    • #1 Operate with integrity.
    • #2 Put the customer first.
    • #3 Make this a great place to work for employees.

3. Southwest Airlines

Southwest Airlines decided to place their employees first, and not customers. The leadership believes that happy employees will lead to happy, satisfied customers and improved revenue. At a point in 2020, Southwest Airlines became the world’s biggest airline by the number of travelers.


How Long Does It Take to Change a Corporate Culture?

On the question of how long it takes to improve an organization’s culture, the answer is: it depends. The desired change depends on factors such as the existing system of recognition and rewards within the firm (who gets the applause? what gets rewarded?), the buy-in of people in management positions, and the behavior of top management (i.e., founder or CEO).

Leadership is the Key

Of these dependent factors and more, the most important element is the behavior of the leader. Employees will mimic or reflect the leader’s interest and focus. But the level of influence a leader has on the company depends on the level of employee engagement, or to put it very simply, trust. 

In laying the foundation for cultural change, the leader must begin by asking such questions as: 

  • What are our values as an organization?
  • What behaviors will we reward? 
  • How shall we continue to do business?

Leaders must start with themselves when addressing these questions. Employees may also be encouraged to speak up about what they consider an ideal corporate culture. More importantly, leaders must be deliberate about communicating their priorities to the organization. 


Changing Your Corporate Culture

To sum it up, the quality of leadership is the critical factor to changing an organization’s culture. Employees will imitate the desired behaviors when they see leaders consistently demonstrating those attitudes and values.

The corporate culture would evolve in the anticipated direction in due course. The process of transformation cannot be engineered but with the right models and incentives, a company’s leader can alter the corporate culture to become a performance-enhancing one that helps to generate growth, revenue, and goodwill.