• Creating a Culture of Innovation

    Everyone knows innovation is important. So why is there so little innovation in the workplace?

    No matter how many times you tell your employees that innovation is important, nothing is going to happen if you just pay lip service to it. Another 20 memos aren’t going to work. Talk alone is not enough—even if everyone agrees that you’re right that innovation is important.

    This blog is about fostering a culture of innovation; making innovation part of the way you do business—part of your organization’s DNA.


    I will say a few words about embedding innovation in organizational culture and then focus on doing this work at the team level—anchoring innovation in your team’s culture—and I will share a powerful leadership model along the way.

    Innovation across the organization:

    To anchor a core value or core competency in organizational culture, design the organization’s levers (the major systems and structures) to drive, reinforce, and sustain it. Core levers include:

    • Employee selection: make innovation a criteria for hiring, promoting, and orienting
    • Training & development: train and coach people how to improve and innovate
    • Performance management: hold people accountable for innovation
    • Reward, recognition, and appreciation for effort and achievement in innovation
    • Communication: clear expectations around the what, why, and how of innovation
    • Structure: org. structure and job design that facilitate excellence in innovation
    • Leadership development: train your leaders how to be more innovative and how to coach & mentor others in their improvement and innovation projects
    • Leadership behavior: ensure your senior leaders are leading by example—modeling desired behavior with respect to continuous improvement and innovation


    These levers are not for manipulation but support. Design your organization to drive, reinforce, and support the behaviour you want. This is all about putting the weight of your organization behind your people so they can achieve their most ambitious objectives. See this blog for more detail.

    A culture of innovation on your team:

    Regardless of the progress your company is making, you can start building a culture of innovation on your team. No reason to wait. Why not be first—why not lead the way in your organization? In any case, learning how to foster a culture of innovation on your team is good for you, your team, and your company.


    My last blog focused on engaging employees in innovation (see here). Let’s continue that discussion by focusing on how to lead by example to foster a culture of innovation on your team.

    Leading by example is such a cliché that we don’t think about what it means anymore. Leading by example can be a powerful leadership model if we break it into three core practices:

    1. talking the talk,
    2. walking the walk, and
    3. locking it into place.


    “Talk, Walk, and Lock” is an extremely practical, efficient, and effective way to shape team culture—to embed new expectations, values, competencies, and practices in team culture.

    Talk the talk:

    First, you have to talk the talk. You have to tell your employees that innovation is a priority. How will they know that innovation is a priority if you don’t tell them?

    Good communication will include the “what,” the “why,” and the “how.” Employees need to know what you are going to be focusing on; what kind of innovation is most needed; why it’s important; and how it’s going to get done. Employees need clear expectations and a good plan.

    As a leader, you always have a choice between saying: “Hey team, this is what we are going to do and this is how we are going to do it” or “Hey team, this is what we’re going to do; how are we going to do it?” Involving them in building the plan of action will enhance understanding, buy-in, and commitment.

    Walk the walk:

    Second, you have to walk the walk. You have to show with your own behavior that you are not merely paying lip service to this idea. You have to get your hands dirty. This is what we normally call leading by example. This is powerful because employees pay far more attention to what you do than what you say. And, obviously, not doing what you say is bad for your credibility as a leader.

    Walking the walk involves asking yourself: “How can I change my behaviour, my values, my schedule, my priorities…to lead by example, model desired behaviour, and ensure the success of this initiative on my team?”

    Lock it into place:

    Third, you have to lock it into place. This involves using the organizational levers that are most actionable and effective at the team level (see the example below).

    These three pieces—talk, walk, and lock—form an extremely powerful leadership practice for shaping team culture and sustaining important initiatives—keeping important initiatives on the table and top of mind.


    Taking action:

    Here are some concrete examples of how you can use talk, walk, and lock to build and sustain a culture of innovation on your team. There are more ideas here than you can use in any one situation—and this is still just the tip of the iceberg. As you read through these tactics, ask yourself:

    1. Which tactics best suit the kind of work that needs to be done; the kind of improvements and innovations we need on our team and in our business?
    2. Which will work best for me given my unique style and strengths as a leader?
    3. How much is enough to get the job done?



    • Communicate clear expectations: the what, why, and how
    • Be transparent about your process & agenda (be open & trustworthy)
    • Make a good case: how it will benefit the company, your team, and WIIFM
    • Communicate the plan or create a plan together with your team
    • Don’t just command & tell—engage employees in the conversation; sell, inspire, discuss, and collaborate; ask for input and feedback
    • Help your employees build on their best ideas
    • Communicate with other teams: share ideas, best practices, resources, and successes



    • Help your employees set and achieve meaningful improvement goals
    • Set and achieve your own improvement goals—and keep your employees in the loop
    • Work on some improvements collaboratively—together with your team
    • Spend quality time giving feedback, coaching, and tracking progress to plan
    • Provide time, resources, training, etc., as needed and appropriate
    • Remove organizational barriers and obstacles for your employees
    • Have people share what they learned: best practices, successes, useful techniques…
    • Maintain a sense of urgency by continuing to communicate the what & why; maintain open dialogue; and be available for support


    The first three tactics here are extremely important. Don’t just tell others to do it. Help them do it, do it yourself, and do it with them. These tactics give your initiative energy and momentum. In other words, it’s one thing to tell your employees to be innovative. It’s another entirely to spend time helping them do it, taking on improvement projects of your own, and working on projects together with them. Each level here, each additional step in this chain, adds credibility and reality to the project, and adds integrity and respect for you as a leader.


    • Regular debriefing to keep it on the table, track progress, and stay on track
    • Debrief in a way that also helps people learn from their experiences
    • Recognize and appreciate effort, achievement, and steps in the right direction
    • Celebrate successes and share the credit
    • Build innovation into the performance mgt. cycle: goals, coaching, accountability
    • Re-confirm priorities and raise the bar
    • Collaborate with your team on more ambitious innovation projects
    • Give people a stake in success



    Many of the suggestions in this blog are more like practices than tactics. They must be practiced over time, you need to be persistent, and you need to step back regularly to reflect on the quality and effectiveness of your practice: “Are we as innovative as we need to be? What is working best; what is not working as well; and how could we do it better?” That’s good leadership.

    Improving your leadership practices is a crucial investment in yourself, your team, and your company.

    Copyright © 2015 Joel Shapiro, Ph.D., all rights reserved.

    Joel is passionate about making employees part of the solution. As a member of the team at Incrementa Consulting, his focus is on building leadership capacity, improving collaborative practice, and aligning culture with strategy to create a competitive advantage for his clients. You can read more of Joel’s thoughts on the Incrementa website, at his former blog, and on twitter.

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