4 Things All Great Cultures of Innovation Have In Common

Posted by Jon Hall on Feb 10, 2014

151336945In part one of our four-part blog series on innovation we wrote about the 8 traits of high performing innovation cultures. Now it’s time to shift the focus from “What drives innovation?” to discussing how to apply the principles and practices to your organization.

When we think of brands that have mastered effective cultures of innovation, a few companies are regularly mentioned on relevant “best of” lists: Google, Ford, P&G, Facebook and Apple, to name a few. Despite the differences in their products and services, these companies all consistently push the envelope of creativity and generate more than the average number of successful new product concepts each year.

Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, however, their cultures of innovation didn’t just “happen.”

To create a culture that fosters openness and creativity, these companies implemented and institutionalized deliberate, strategic activities for nearly every aspect of their businesses so that it eventually has become part of their DNA:

1. They know that if you want to create new and different ideas, your approach has to be new and different.

Inbound marketing software company HubSpot has created a culture of focused and committed experimentation that’s led to meaningful change. Looking through their company culture page, you’ll find HubSpot’s employee guidebook, an entire page of which is dedicated to change and includes statements like, “We challenge conventional wisdom and seek innovative ways to disrupt the status quo when warranted” and, quoting Mark Twain, “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it’s time to pause and reflect.”

These words are reflected in HubSpot’s real-life culture during their “Agile Scrum” and extreme experimentation processes. Each month, HubSpot employees are thrown into teams with other members from R&D, marketing, sales, and service. Here, they’re commissioned to work on a self-inspired innovative project, where they’re responsible for delegating assignments and holding one another accountable. Once the month is over, teams present their ideas at “Science Fairs,” where the best ideas are moved further down the concept production line.

As a part of their extreme, 3-part experimentation process, any employees with the energy for new ideas are encouraged to experiment (usually on nights and weekends) with no permission needed. In fact, no one person even knows about the experiments going at any given time in this initial Alpha stage. In Beta, if the experiment goes well, the “experiment champion” is given the project full-time as their new day job. If the project continues to show success, it’s moved to the final stage, Version 1, where the experiment champion becomes a “mini-CEO” and is given more resources to operate almost as a startup within HubSpot.

The well-known PC gaming company Valve has made their approach to hiring and work roles markedly different than most companies: employees are hired not to fill a specific role but to constantly be looking around for the most valuable work they could be doing. Their organizational chart is completely flat and no one has a manager. In fact, there really are no job descriptions, nor do people start Day One with a list of duties to perform. The projects he or she works on is chosen by each employee, based on their answers to these questions:

  • Of all the projects currently under way, what's the most valuable thing I can be working on?
  • Which project will have the highest direct impact on our customers?
  • How much will the work I do benefit them?
  • Is Valve not doing something that it should be doing?

By approaching roles in this way, Valve employees apply themselves in a way that’s focused on making the end user experience more complete and satisfying, and it helps the company develop the most passionate and effective teams for every project.

While approaches like these might work for HubSpot and Valve, companies with long-established (and very traditional) cultures might suffer a shock that could disrupt their organization in negative ways. If this describes your company, borrow or create activities or processes and implement them as complements to your current culture. For example, looking to stay ahead of the curve in automobile technology, Ford has set up “listening posts” in Silicon Valley to stay updated on the latest technology trials, errors, and rumors. By keeping one ear on the technology sector in California and one ear on the auto industry in Detroit, Ford is able to use the new technology and innovation to facilitate game-changing concepts, all without having to implement radical changes.

And if change is going to be a Sisyphus-like task for your organization as a whole, focus first on your innovation team only, and apply what you establish for that team to appropriate areas within your company once you start seeing successes.

2. They encourage collaboration and idea sharing, no matter where the input comes from.

The leaders of P&G, a company that delivers $100 million worth of new products to the market quarter after quarter, have directed their R&D team to stop inventing and start treasure hunting – the “treasure” being inspiration, and look for it anywhere and everywhere. And because too many experts in one field can limit exploration into new territory, these treasure hunts do not include the R&D team – ideas are sourced from outside the department, and must satisfy these criteria:

  • Half of all future ideas have to come from places other than the R&D department (though the idea must go through the R&D department)
  • Bring in the smartest people you know to be part of the process, no matter their role or department. SpencerHall helps clients do this during brainstorming by including client team members and the third-party expertise of our Brain Trust, a group of professionals from a wide range of industries, all with different expertise and perspectives - and each of whom sees opportunity in different places

While you may not be able to reconfigure your org chart or redefine a department, here are a couple “first steps” to encourage productive collaboration:

  • Create comfortable, colorful areas where people from anywhere in the company can come to share and build on one another's ideas; send the message often that the company wants people to take advantages of these spaces
  • Encourage personal growth. Companies like Madison, WI-based Epic Systems offers a 4-week paid vacation for employees (and a companion) who've been at the company 5 years, with the caveat that the trip must be to another country - and one the employee has not been to. The purpose? Give employees a learning experience while they re-charge their batteries
  • Be flexible. Creativity doesn't thrive in restrictive environments. Where feasible, loosen the constraints around office hours, workspaces and policies, communicating to employees the purpose. Some companies, like HubSpot, don't even track vacation or sick days - they say 'get the job done' and leave it to individuals to determine when they need to be at work
  • Start hiring differently. Look for people who think differently, like change, are adaptable, remarkable...even unusual. Don't, however, compromise on skills and talent

3. They see research as a way to uncover inspiration, not just answers. And they look for inspiration everywhere, not just within their companies or categories.

Too often researchers approach their task looking for specific answers to questions like, “What features do mothers feel are most valuable in a car seat?” In order to truly create a culture of innovation, you can’t make answering questions or solving specific problems as the only objective to research.

That’s not to say that some important groundwork shouldn’t be done first. Our Disciplined Creativity® approach is the due diligence that’s needed up front to understand the consumer and category, clearly define objectives, and set the stage for broad exploration.

Once that’s established, it’s time to look for that inspiration. Here are two ways of doing that:

  • Inspiration immersions. Prior to conducting brainstorming sessions, we often send clients on immersion activities to stretch their thinking beyond their product category. For example, on a kids snack project we had participants go on “scavenger hunts” at a variety of retailers and places targeted to kids. Their mission was to find a variety of items, like something kids love that parents hate, or something gross that kids think is cool. We also use exploration of category adjacencies for inspiration. On a healthy beverage project, participants explored categories that spanned multiple product forms/offerings and were important “badge” categories that linked to self esteem, such as prestige cosmetics, apparel, and fitness equipment. The goal was to identify the sights, sounds and potentially transferable elements from each category
  • Using our Re/Discovery consulting partnership, we bring fresh, outside perspective to help clients identify breakthrough new ideas that exist within the technology and competencies the company already has. We focus on identifying under-exploited potentials, looking at patented, patentable or emerging technologies that aren’t part of their active development portfolios. It’s an approach that eliminates the limitations of a “what do we want to make?” mindset and looks for the next big idea in existing capabilities

4. They’re not driven by a tight timeline; they recognize that culture change won’t happen overnight, nor is it just a one-time task – it’s an ongoing process that’s slowly integrated into how you do business.

You know those light bulb moments of brilliance? Those don’t just happen the minute you put the foundational elements of an innovation culture in place. Building that culture takes persistence and patience and requires that you repeatedly communicate the company’s innovation goals, reinforces its commitment from the top, shares results, and celebrates even small victories that resulted from the changes. When your employees start to see positive results, the desire to achieve more can be infectious.

When you realize your efforts aren’t making the kind of impact you’d hoped, consult with external sources who can better see potential issues you’ve overlooked and help develop new idea generation processes to help shake things up.



As part of the basic definition of culture – in which culture consists of group norms, behaviors, and shared values that keep those norms in place – innovation became an integral part of some companies’ social fabrics and ultimately a part of their corporate DNA. If innovation in products or services is part of your professional responsibilities, it’s up to you to honestly assess how well you’re performing as an organization, and then start taking the deliberate first steps toward building a culture of innovation in your organization.

Next week: Critical Success Factors for More Effective Innovation. In the meantime, check out our tip sheet on the 7 elements of successful cultures of innovation to learn more.

New Call-to-Action

Topics: innovation, culture of innovation, innovation management, insights