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Human Potential in the Age of Exponential Tech

How Can Organizations Encourage Innovation?

This post, is a part of my thinking and research for my new book, centred around the tensions between productivity and creativity. You can follow other related entries here


I was in Sydney, Australia talking to the team at the Commonwealth Bank of Australia about innovation and the future of banking. One of the questions that came up several times during the day centred around the Culture of Innovation and what organizations needed to do – in concrete terms- to help bring some of these cultural changes about.


1) Innovation is the end product

Many organizations maintain that they want to build a culture that values and prioritizes innovation and yet lack a fundamental understanding of the changes that need to occur on an individual, team, and leadership level to make those changes a reality. It’s important to remember that innovation is the end product that occurs after many other factors have aligned.

In my Innovation and Disruptive Business Models class that I teach at Science Po, I spend a fair chunk of time identifying and addressing the various constraints that prevent innovation within an organization.  I always start at the individual level. Innovation stems from having the ability to take inspiration from the world around you and make new connections. It requires a certain level of creativity.

There is a common misconception that creativity is an integral part of a person’s individuality but research has revealed a different story. It turns out that creativity is underpinned by a collection of habits that can be strengthened and built up with diligent practice. These habits are Perception, Intellection & Communication. (I’ve written about this topic more here.)

At a team level, employees need to develop an understanding of how to manage conflict and different styles of ideation. I recommend taking the Basadur applied creativity that identifies how you approach problem solving. It helps identify each member’s communication style and highlights how to best communicate with each other.


2) Time to think

From an organizational level it’s amazing how many organizations expect their talent to continuously come up with good ideas and yet never give them the chance to do so. When this issue came up in discussion, I asked the crowd: How many people have time to  sit and think about their long term strategic goals on a regular basis? No hands went up. “I do some of that thinking on my commute home,” one gentleman offered. Another woman said she tackles those issues on the weekend while her kids nap.

Now this isn’t just the fault of organizations. We, as a work culture have become a little too productivity-obsessed. We like to fill our day to the brim with meetings, calls, emails and other busy work that give the impression of progress when in reality we are just reacting to the needs and priorities of others instead of doing the deep thinking we need to really tackle some of those business challenges.

I subscribe to Cal Newport’s deep work approach to personal productivity.  I usually try to structure my most important work into 90 minute sprints where I’m totally focused on only one task: no calls, no emails, no Facebook. Then I’ll take a 20 minute break and repeat the process through out the day. I’ve started carving out 90 minutes a day where I just sit and think. Whether it’s about a new project, new ideas, things I’m writing about – I use that time to stop and take the time to just let my brain process what’s been going on.

At first, it felt really uncomfortable. I felt like I was just wasting time  by sitting around and not DOING anything. But, it turns out that that little window of time was a life saver. It helped me prioritize the things that were the most important to my business, as well as gave me the time to be proactive and forward looking instead of constantly reacting to emails and requests.


3) An Honest conversation about failure

Failure is something that keeps coming up when you talk about innovation. One of the major reasons that radical (or disruptive) innovation often has such high rewards is because the risks are equally high. Radical innovation is unpredictable and requires a huge investment of time and resources. Unlike incremental innovation, we can’t always predict how it’s going to go. Many organizations can’t stomach this type of risk and while they say they understand that failure is a part of the process, their organizational culture still shames people who fail.

I should point out here that failure does not mean someone who isn’t doing their job adequately or up to standards, but rather someone who takes a risk by trying something new. Trying is the only way we learn if it’s going to work or not, so I would really encourage you to look inside your organizations and see how you define, react and encourage (or discourage) failure and how those things could be hurting your team’s ability to come up with good ideas.


Once we start digging into innovation we see that the brilliant ideas that emerge, can only do so within the right conditions. Instead of focusing on innovation, we should focus on creating the space where it can thrive within our organizations.

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