Creating a culture of innovation

You can’t blame AI for feeling smug these days. Basking in the spotlight from the media, marketers and most of LinkedIn, it’s strutted centre-stage, held out the mic and asked if we’re ready for it. Taking only ‘yes’ for an answer, on it performs. With digital transformation already outpacing our ability to regulate it, many of us in Strategic Communications are maximising its power to radically enhance our work.

To do that means being innovative ourselves. In my previous blog on Innovation, I focused mainly on the power of AI. AI is just one of many branches on the innovation tree. If we want our products, services and communications to adopt and adapt more generally, our workplace culture is the root of that success. So how can we be our most innovative at work?

1. Think big first, details later

Thinking big is good. Getting stuck on ‘how’ too early limits creative thinking, innovation’s entry point. Instead, contribute to a culture of curiosity by asking expansive questions such as:

  • We’ve done it this way for a while. Why? What if we did it like this instead?
  • What process can we add/remove to make this more efficient?
  • What haven’t we considered? What gap analysis is needed?

Details are important – at the right time. Keep opportunities in mind, not just barriers and risks. ‘Don’t reinvent the wheel’ is a helpful reminder that innovation doesn’t mean starting from scratch. Like the wheel’s evolution, innovation is a state of continuous improvement. Kaizen philosophy, from “change” (kai), “for the good” (zen), sums this concept up well. See below image for a typical application of Kaizen, which is discussed in this article.

 A circular flow chart showing 7 stages of action. 1 – Get employees involved. 2. Gather a list of problems. 3. Encourage solutions then choose an idea. 4. Test the solution. 5. Regularly measure and analyze the results. 6. If successful, adopt the solution. 7. Repeat on an ongoing basis. Text in the centre reads ‘Kaizen cycle for continuous improvement – Kaizen requires identifying areas for improvement, creating solutions and plans for a rollout – and then cycling through the process again for other issues or issues that were inadequately addressed’.

Image source: What is Kaizen (Continuous Improvement)? (

2. Don’t look (solely) to leaders to innovate

Innovation works best when employees believe their ideas are as good as anyone else’s in the room. Whether that’s Executives, Directors, Assistants, Managers or Ministers. Over-reliance on leaders to pave the way for creative thinking contradicts the spirit of innovation itself. However, excessive self-reliance can shield us from other perspectives, and diverse thinking is vital for an innovative mindset, (more on that under ‘Creative’ in the GCS Leadership Framework).

To avoid alienating any leaders reading this, there’s no doubt leaders can help create the conditions for innovative culture – through seeking different perspectives, continuously re-evaluating the status-quo, remaining inquisitive and open-minded, encouraging constructive challenge and embracing collaboration and fresh ideas.

These attributes are equally important for anyone who wants to be more innovative. Keep leaders accountable when it comes to innovation. And extend this to accountability to yourself, which leads me nicely to…

3. Know the part you play

Culture is often described as ‘other.’ We ask, ’What’s the culture like at your workplace?’, as if it exists outside of us. I like a follow-up of, ‘How do you contribute to your workplace culture?’ Everything we do (or don’t do) every day creates the culture of our working environments – what we say, how we say it, how we treat others, how we approach challenges, how we give and receive feedback, when we take lunch, how long for.

With that in mind, what are you doing today to make your workplace culture more innovative? Here’s a 10-point checklist as a starter. These could be used to initiate workshop discussions or similar brainstorms on team culture:

  1. Do you regularly encourage, ask for and share new ideas? How are ideas acted on?
  2. How do you support a curious and entrepreneurial mindset among colleagues?
  3. Does your organisation have an Innovation Strategy? This helps create a shared vision, define innovation, why it’s important and how you’ll achieve it.
  4. How does your organisation ensure colleagues have the freedom to create and develop their own ideas?
  5. To what extent do colleagues work collaboratively? What’s done to ensure colleagues are learning from multi-disciplinary teams and approaches?
  6. How is creative thinking ability enhanced across teams? e.g. via coaching, mentoring, show and tells or shared examples of inspiring campaigns.
  7. Are opportunities monitored alongside risks?
  8. What’s your response to failed approaches? How is that ‘failure’ defined?
  9. How much time is given to creativity and innovation among your teams? This could be workshops, seminars or ad hoc/on the job. 3M are a notable example here, who launched a “15% rule” in 1948, where 15% of employees’ time was innovation focused. They were encouraged to share how they used that time, with one such 15% stint inadvertently leading to the creation of the Post-it note. In GCS, we’re currently applying 10% resource and time to innovation.
  10. How is innovation defined, recognised and rewarded? For example, are ‘Innovation Awards’ part of your Reward and Recognition schemes?

Your actions don’t need to be ground-breaking to be innovative. ‘Success is the sum of small actions repeated daily’, as the influencer-friendly mantra goes. It’s the same with innovation.

4. Incremental shifts

I talked in my last blog about incremental innovation. It doesn’t have to be all self-driving taxis, robot advisors and silicon-smooth faces playing on our greatest fears. (A report by Ipsos MORI showed a majority of US adults surveyed agree that ‘Preventing the risk of human extinction from AI’ should be a top global priority). Small and steady shifts can be subtle yet effective. Yes, we want to capitalise on the opportunity presented by digital technology. However, innovation doesn’t have to be all tech-based. It’s just as much about doing things differently as it is doing new things.

Types of non-tech transformation at work could be:

Team changes

Assuming these are made to align the way teams work to achieving more effective business outcomes, these can significantly improve development opportunities, facilitate greater knowledge sharing, collaboration and increase motivation. Just make sure you’re communicating the why, when and how of the changes clearly, considerately and in advance.

Re-designed office spaces

Think less Google office-style makeover and more subtle layout changes to improve cross-team working. Perhaps integrating Press and Campaign teams by Policy area or making brainstorming spaces more readily available. Think about how to apply this to home/non-office-workers too.

Sign-off processes

Evaluate existing layers of procedure. Do A, B and C in said team need to review that document weekly or can they produce a collective response instead? Streamlining process for more efficient working might not sound thrilling, but it can make your working practices better.

5. Ambition

Finally, do you genuinely want to innovate? If not, this might show in:

  • your willingness to experiment
  • the amount of effort put into creative thinking
  • the morale and motivation of you/your colleagues
  • and indirectly, levels of engagement with your campaign outputs

Granted, it’s not always that linear. You can have the will, enthusiasm and energy to improve, and limited resources and/or budget feels like a huge hurdle. Innovation doesn’t have to mean increased spend. Nor should it be done just for the sake of it, if it won’t add value or improvement. Focus your teams on enhancing and evolving daily. That cumulative effort could result in a more significant, and beneficial, long-term shift.

Go further: