Creating a Corporate Culture of Innovation

June 11, 2010
By Lisa Barone in 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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