Creating a Corporate Culture of Innovation

by on 06/11/2010 • 16 Comments | Online Marketing

Yesterday was entirely frustrating. At least for me.

As you probably saw, Google decided to get away from its core and spice things up. In her post the art of a homepage on the official Google blog, Marissa Mayer lets us in on a new ‘feature’ they added long enough for people to complain and have it removed. We got background images! The new addition was (I assume) designed to promote the fact that Google now allows users to add their favorite photo or image to the background of their Google.com homepage. It was silly, it took away from Google’s brand identity (simple search) and, quite predictably, the media had a field day with it.

Here are some of yesterday’s top headlines. There were many more, these are just some of my favorites.

The headlines were very clever, however, Bing wasn’t the first major search engine to insert background images on its search page. Ask.com was. Remember Ask 3D? Probably not.

For those that don’t know, I was a major Ask.com loyalist around the time that Jim Lanzone (now of Clicker) was in charge of things. Jim believed in Ask and he made other people believe in Ask, too. When Ask 3D launched (before Google’s Universal Search) in June of 2007, it boasted a number of great features.

Things like:

  • Three-panel view to highlight search refinement/targeting features. [Google and Bing have since borrowed many of these components.]
  • Ability to play media directly from SERPs [Google’s all over it now. So is Bing.]
  • Background images to encourage people to check out what was under the hood. [Yep.]
  • Subject portal pages. [Took this, too.]

Ask may not have had market share, but the features they were hawking were unarguably innovative and better. And up until real-time and social search came around, they were the most innovative additions to the SERPs we had seen in quite some time. Even tech legend Walt Mossberg agreed.

Ask.com was innovative because the people inside of Ask believe in what they were doing and they dared to be. They were passionate and forward-thinking and they caused others to believe, as well. Or they did until Barry Diller removed Ask’s heart six months later before eventually killing off the engine. And through that I learned an important lesson.

To be innovative, you need to support innovation, to bleed innovation, and to base your company around innovation. If you don’t create that culture, you’re dead in the water.

To be honest, I haven’t seen a lot of innovation lately and it’s frustrating. Google copying Bing copying Ask.com isn’t innovative. Putting pictures on your search results isn’t new, it’s not game changing, it doesn’t make anyone look at your company and go, “wow, that’s worth investing it”.

And while it’s easy to pick on the big dogs for performing the same old tricks, is your company any different?

Your business is probably running down the same path. You’re noting what’s working from your competitor and you’re finding ways to integrate the same thing into your business. The problem is you’re not bettering what they’re doing. You’re just adding it on like an also-ran. That’s not innovation. That’s reactive catch up. It’s not how you stand out, it’s not how you steal market, it’s not how you create a point of difference for your company.

You need to inspire your employees and your supervisors to be innovative. You need to create a culture of innovation. How do you do it? I don’t have all the answers, but here’s where I’d start.

  1. Abolish the Hierarchy: When there’s a boss, people wait to be told what to do. When you create teams, people pitch in what needs to be done. It encourages creativity and encourages people to step up.
  2. Stress The Bigger Picture: Everyone needs to understand the company’s bigger picture. Where are you headed? What does the company value and what are they trying to create? As long as employees understand this, they can make decisions with the company’s goals in mind. Without it, and you’re sending them out blind.
  3. Support Mistakes: It’s one thing to encourage your employees to take risks, it’s another thing to give them your full support when they fail. No one is going to take a chance or try something new if it means potentially getting them fired. Create an organization that rewards innovation through pay, promotion, validation, whatever works.
  4. Don’t Pigeon-hole People : Part of removing your corporate hierarchy means not pigeon-holing people into one job. Get rid of the permanence. If someone thinks all they’re ever going to be is part of your Writing team, they’re not going to learn the other aspects of the company. They’re not going to invest themselves and offer up ideas for other departments. Encourage people to sit in on meetings outside of their particular field if they have an interest. Encourage them to offer ideas.
  5. Give People Access to Information: As an employee, there’s nothing more frustrating and more defeating than to feel like you don’t have access to the information you need to do your job or make decisions. If you want to inspire innovation, let go of your ability to control this as much as possible. Give people the information they need to make ballsy decisions, with all the facts behind them. It will make a world of difference.
  6. Highlight Innovation: Keep employees up-to-date on where you are, how you’re innovating and who has been responsible for pushing the company forward. Nothing lights a fire under an ass or sparks those juices like some healthy competition. Use it.

It’s frustrating to see good companies suffocate themselves by following the leader or being too fearful to take the next step in case it’s wrong. How are some ways you inspire innovation? What would you add to my list? Or, maybe, what are some companies you think are doing it right?

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About the Author

Lisa Barone

Lisa Barone co-founded Outspoken Media in 2009 and served as Chief Branding Officer until April 2012.

Get social with Lisa at Twitter

16 thoughts on “Creating a Corporate Culture of Innovation

  1. I remember reading back in bschool about an organization in which every employee had the same designation: associate. It stuck in my head as a novel way of doing things. On the other hand, would it work as well in a large organization? How would you know who to talk to when you had to, for instance, report a problem in a particular area?

  2. Between Caffeine & totally changing the look and feel of their SERPS, it would be difficult to accuse Google of not being innovative IMO (regardless of what you might think of these innovations). The photo thing is a pretty superficial feature that could have been better presented to users…I don’t see it relating much if at all to Google’s core initiatives.

    • Except that changing the look and feel of their SERPs just made them look like Bing (and Ask). Copycatting is not innovation.

      Caffeine is a better example, but it’s still just a refinement of their core proficiency, not a revolution.

  3. Damn you, Lisa Barone. I had my guest post all written, and then you toss this in, and that gave me an idea for a whole different post expanding on something you said above. What to do, what to do.

  4. I’m all for innovation, but one inherent problem with innovation is that most new and innovative ideas fail. And for a lot of companies that’s ok. But a lot of smaller companies cannot afford these types of failures. They can’t afford to take these types of risks. So what do they do? They stick to the proven methods. They piggy back on new innovative ideas that work for their competitors. Hopefully, they make those ideas better, make them their own in some way.

    I love seeing innovation. I encourage it. I think all companies who can afford to be innovative should. I also think that all companies will eventually have to be innovative on some level to be and remain competitive. However, if you see a competitor doing something that you can replicate and it will improve your business, well, that’s just smart.

  5. Tyler, the best innovative ideas come from failures. If you are not trying anything new at all, then you are never going to move forward.

    Lisa, adored this post. Great Friday read for me!

  6. Kristi, i’m by no means discouraging innovation. I loved this post and agree with it. However, the post seemed to imply that replicating a competitors success is not as important or is less valuable than coming up with your own idea. I’m simply saying this isn’t always the case.

    Consider this, you have 2 ideas that you think can increase your company’s bottom line by 10%. The first idea is something completely new. It is risky, will take you 2 months to implement and the cost might be a bit prohibitive. But it is something nobody has ever done before. The second idea is industry standard. Something a lot of your competitors are doing. You can implement it in 2 weeks at very little cost. Which is the better option?

    The answer isn’t always the same. Some companies can afford and should do both. Some can’t. Every situation is different. At the end of the day we need to work smarter. Whatever that means for your company. If that means being innovative, great. I love it. However, there are plenty of examples of super innovative companies that have quickly faded to nothing and companies that probably don’t even know the meaning of innovation that persist.

  7. Tyler, hopefully we are coming from the same thought but just saying something slightly different. Yes, we need to work smarter. But if it is a justification of “ABC Company has a blue widget, let’s make sure we have a blue widget too!” then that is pretty lame, imho. Being innovative doesn’t have to take time and cost a ton of money. It’s simply finding a good strategy to market well, provide innovative customer service, find a niche and hit it, etc, etc. It doesn’t have to be difficult to produce. But if you are never trying new things (products, marketing, anything at all) you are never going to succeed.

  8. Yes, I’m pretty sure we are saying the same thing. I agree with all of your above points. For a company to succeed it will have to be innovative. But sometimes it will probably have to be “lame” too. And that’s ok.

  9. I like the photo of the frustrated female. Perfect example how someone could potentially wind up with a stiff neck if sitting like that too long. :)

    The Google homepage switch bugged me, I didn’t like it at all. Funny that I expect seeing images on Bing.

  10. Lisa,

    I’d add that I try to stay in touch with individual likes and dislikes. the more I can align someone’s passions with their work, and verbally communicate how important their insights, questions, and thoughts are on topics they’re involved in, the more likely they are to enjoy the work, feel empowered, and open up as to their view.

    When they’re not allowed to help set the course of their career in this way, they’re least likely to want to contribute. Because when I’m passionate about something, and I know that passion and my resulting insights are appreciated, I go the extra mile.

    It’s amazing how creative people can be when they’re given that opportunity.

  11. Great article! Thank you. Especially like your statement around basing your company on a culture of innovation. Few do that. Startups tend to have it for a moment, but then get lost in creating the same old structures that have blown up corporate operating costs explaining the constantly declining RoA of US companies. To be innovative shows in making the most out of what you have in ever new ways while sticking to your core identity, not to create ever new ways of fudging debt instruments to get a better bottom line, jumping on every latest band waggon, and purchasing edge companies while the overall performance erodes…

  12. Just out of curiosity, do you have any examples of companies that support the suggestions you have listed above?

    I agree with most of the post – but two points have risks attached that could be deadly to an organization IMHO:

    Abolish the Hierarchy: <– Someone needs to be responsible for delivery and making the final decision. In a large organization no hierarchy means chaos.

    Support Mistakes: <– Enron really supported this in their company culture. Read all about it in the case studies of where they went wrong. Accepting and learning from mistakes might be a better idea. Supporting them is a whole other story. In the case of Enron, they would move people up who would make terrible, expensive mistakes and thought it was wonderful because we learn more for mistakes than we do from success. A corporate culture of innovation – running the company into the ground.

    Just my 2 cents.

  13. I agree with Todd. Not many companies make constant improvements to their core product like Google. That doesn’t mean that they will swing and miss on other ventures (pretty much anything social), but when you are constantly testing new ideas that is bound to happen.

  14. Lisa,

    Thank you very much for bringing this topic back to the forefront. There have always been companies who are willing to innovate with corporate structures that include their employees as valuable resources as opposed to ‘bottoms in the seats’ there for a specific purpose and nothing more.

    In my experience, a good balance is needed between innovation and the general heirarchy of command.

    What generally happens when the belt gets tightened is that the “innovations” are the first thing to go and projects get scrapped. They don’t see the long term ROI as valuable for a project that needs to be fleshed out and would prefer to attempt the short term quick fix when presented with two different options.

    Who knows your company better than the people and teams on the front lines doing the work day in and day out regardless of the type of business you are in? There are people in these corporations who do want to add value and it is those types who feel they aren’t being valued that are the first to jump ship and go “value add” somewhere else when the opportunity arises and that fabulous little product or a variation of it is now a product somewhere else that their original company will end up piggy backing on.

    These companies need to think about it a little bit more.

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