How to Build an Innovative Culture - The Big Bang Partnership

How to Build an Innovative Culture

innovation culture in action

This article is all about innovation culture. I’m going to share:

  • What is an innovative culture?
  • Why does having an innovative culture matter?
  • How do you perceive the innovation culture of your team or business, and how does that affect your performance?
  • How you can measure the innovation culture of your team or business
  • What you can do to create a better, more innovative culture at work
Dr. Jo North
Dr. Jo North

What is an innovative culture?

A definition of an innovative culture is how an organization’s purpose, practices, processes, relationships, decision-making, activities, history and ambition and more, all combine to create an environment that achieves successful innovation.

It’s an organizational culture that is both supportive and capable of innovation. Team members have great, innovative ideas, area able to communicate those ideas and put them into action to benefit the organization and its stakeholders.

An innovative culture is one where the status quo is challenged and not accepted as a given. Employees demonstrate a growth mindset, strive for better ways of doing things and for continuous improvement as well as more disruptive innovations.

Video: Innovative Culture

The importance of innovation

Why does having an innovative culture matter?

Csikszentmihalyi (1999) identifies that creativity is only recognised and acknowledged within the social context that it exists within. It depends not just on the individual creativity of those who have new ideas, but also on how receptive people in the surrounding organization are to those new ideas. 

This is highly relevant in the context because we all operate within the ‘community’ of our organization – the receptiveness of the organization to our individual creativity will influence how innovative we are at work, and in turn the results that our organizations achieve.

Light bulb moments

If we perceive that we work in a positive innovation culture, we are more likely to be encouraged and motivated to be more innovative ourselves. Likewise, a less innovative culture is a disincentive for individuals to engage in innovation and share ideas.

Individual and team creativity fuels organizational innovation, which in turns impacts on individual and team creativity as a mutually reinforcing virtuous circle. This shapes your internal innovation ecosystem.

Creativity and innovation create your organization’s unique intellectual capital.

Creativity and innovative culture

Creativity is an antecedent to innovation. Appropriate ideas and opportunities need to be recognised and communicated by individuals in order for the ideas to be used in practise. 

It’s helpful to think of every person in the business as an organizational catalyst, mobilising the motivation and resources of the organization, and activating its management practises to results. 

As the organization enjoys and gains confidence from the individual’s successful generation of beneficial organizational outcomes, so is likely to become more receptive to further innovation initiatives. 

This in turn may also be catalytic in motivating the individual to propose and effect more innovation opportunities to the organisation, creating a virtuous circle. There is a clear link between the organisation and individual employee performance. I studied this in detail in my PhD research.

Individual employees need to be in an environment that supports innovation, because:

“When environments and structures are hospitable to innovation, people’s natural inventiveness and power skills can make almost anything happen.”


Long-term growth and profitability are linked with progressive human resources practise and employee engagement.

Most organizations will benefit from learning how to trust their employees and give them the opportunity and encouragement to use their creativity to benefit the business, leveraging their innovation capability as a unique, competitive advantage and source of competitive differentiation.

Why performance management is important for an innovative culture

In addition to creating a work environment that nurtures employee creativity, it’s important to provide scaffolding through discipline, structure, process and competence.

 “Innovative cultures are generally depicted as pretty fun. They’re characterized by a tolerance for failure and a willingness to experiment. They’re seen as being psychologically safe, highly collaborative, and nonhierarchical…[these] easy-to-like behaviors that get so much attention are only one side of the coin. They must be counterbalanced by some tougher and frankly less fun behaviors: an intolerance for incompetence, rigorous discipline, brutal candor, a high level of individual accountability, and strong leadership. Unless the tensions created by this paradox are carefully managed, attempts to create an innovative culture will fail.”

The Hard Truth About Innovative Cultures, Harvard Business Review

How do you perceive the innovation culture of your team or business, and how does that affect your performance?

How do you feel about your team or organization? Do you perceive it to be too slow and risk averse, gung-ho and risk taking or just right?

We each see our work environment through the lens of our our preferences. A risk averse person may not see a risk averse business as a problem, but someone who loves big change and new ideas might see that same business as being an incredibly frustrating place to work, as if they are banging their heads against a brick wall repeatedly to get any changes made.

Find or create the innovative culture that best suits you

The important thing for you, regardless of your preference, is to be in an innovation culture that is right for you.

If you are a leader or influencer in the business, you have a great opportunity to shape the innovation culture for the better, using the tips below.

If you’re not in a position to influence, think about how any dissonance with the culture might be affecting your performance and happiness at work and maybe start to look for other opportunities.

Research shows that we perform better when we can play to our strengths, so if you don’t believe that you’re getting to use yours most days, then it could be time for a change.

How can you measure the innovation culture of your team or business?

Different employees working in very similar circumstances in the same team or organisation could hold very different perceptions of the innovation culture of that same team or organization.

An individual’s evaluation of innovation culture will always be subjective, regardless of the instrument used to test it, but it’s still worth seeing where you’re at, taking action to improve and then remeasuring. 

I can help you to create an innovation culture survey, strategy and implementation plan tailored just for you and your business that will create a step change in the effectiveness of your innovation culture, and lead to measurable commercial results, as well as significant improvements to your employee and customer engagement.

What can you do to create a more innovative culture at work?

1. Make innovation part of your business model’s DNA.

Position innovation as being everyone’s job, not just the role of Research and Development or innovation team. Create and communicate an innovation strategy for your organisation with your employees. Align performance appraisals, rewards, and incentives to the achievement of your innovation strategy.

2. Senior leadership needs to role model the company culture and positive innovation behaviors they want to see in others

Senior leaders need to have a growth mindset, ask great questions – and be open to honest answers, even if they aren’t always pleasant to hear. It also means never being complacent, always striving for better, making decisions quickly and being prepared to try new things.

3. Foster an integrative approach to problem-solving across the business

Bring people from different business units, teams, roles and disciplines together to collaborate in creative thinking for solutions to specific customer needs, business opportunities, and challenges. This destroys silos and leads to greater organizational performance overall, which naturally leads to a more positive and effective innovation culture. Ideal conditions for innovative thinking are a culture that is highly differentiated into specialised fields and roles, yet is held together by a shared purpose, vision and appreciation for collaboration. Team members are always seeking new ways of working for continuous improvement.

4. Create diverse teams

When people from different backgrounds collaborate, the results can be powerful. A variety of backgrounds, preferences, thinking styles, ages, departments and experiences gives a mix of unique perspectives that lead to much richer solutions.

5. Identify your most dynamic, high-potential innovators

High-potential innovators thrive on personal stretch (i.e. challenges that mean they have to work at the very edge of their competency), being future-focused and having the ability to synthesize ideas from sources that appear to have no obvious connection. Research, including my own, shows that might become bored easily. Offer your best talent variety and access to new problems and opportunities to solve.

6. Build psychological safety

Innovations often experience setbacks and failures before they succeed. An individual innovator is taking a risk every time they propose or take accountability for something new. Risk-taking and potential failure are ingredients of creative acts. Making risk-taking and failure less threatening and dangerous promotes innovative behaviors. When creative initiatives are met with suspicion, defensiveness and aggression, the individual’s fear of failure becomes strong and they are much less likely to voice what could be potentially great ideas for the business.

Video: How to create psychological safety in teams

7. People need time and tools to innovate

Give people the time and tools they need to do the job. This does not mean unlimited budget. In fact, research shows that having some constraints such as a limited budget actually strengthens creativity and innovation.

8. Watch out for stress and pressure

Stress and pressure are very subjective. Something that stresses the heck out of me might not bother you at all, and vice versa. Our individual threshold for stress and pressure varies too. Some people seem to be able to absorb a lot, and others less. Every individual has their own sweet spot. We need the right amount to give us a boost to crack on and make stuff happen, but not so much that we become overwhelmed and end up in fight , flight or “in the headlights” mode. Read more about how to develop your resilience here.

9. Take affordable, calculated risks

Take calculated risks that you can afford if they go wrong. Experiment and test stuff. We don’t learn anything unless we trial things. We won’t learn anything from keeping an idea on the shelf because we don’t get any feedback on what works and what doesn’t. When people in your team or business see that it’s ok to try things out, they’ll feel better about taking action on their ideas. 

10. Foster playfulness

Collaboration includes being playful and fun behaviors. Playfulness is potentially most important during the creativity stages of the innovation process, but useful throughout as it supports a sense of shared experience and team working.

11. Be decisive and dynamic

Don’t sit on ideas for too long. Show strong leadership. Make decisions in a reasonable timescale and then act swiftly. Research shows that perceptions of an innovative organizational culture increase substantially when individuals see dynamic, decisive action being taken around them.

12. Create physical or virtual space for connections

Create Innovation Lab style spaces and opportunities for interaction. Innovation Labs are a co-working space designed for interaction – these could be virtual, physical or both– to help employees form connections, have light bulb moments in coffee and water-cooler chats, and brainstorm.

13. Build a good innovation process

Management practices for innovation need to be supported by a great innovation process. This should bring the right level of structure and governance for your organization, without being so bureaucratic that it inhibits your innovation progress.

14. Use Agile methodology

Tech companies and many others use agile methodology to accelerate innovation and create a culture of continuous improvement. They deliver projects by working in sprints – short bursts of activity, followed by a retrospective meeting, or lessons learned workshop, before proceeding to the next phase of the project. More innovative thinking and continuous improvement best practices become a natural part of how employees perform their roles as a result.

15. Think long term

if you’re an established business, your entire organization won’t become innovative overnight. Celebrate small improvements, work on your hiring process to bring in people who will stimulate fresh thinking and can support your more innovative projects and disruptive ideas. Be consistent, and show existing employees the mutual value of thinking differently to find new solutions to customer needs.

Get expert support

As I said earlier, I can help you to create an innovation culture survey, strategy and implementation plan tailored just for you and your business that will create a step change in the effectiveness of your innovation culture, and lead to measurable commercial results, as well as significant improvements to your employee and customer engagement.

Please get in touch in the comments and using the contact form here, and I will get straight back to you. We will have a confidential Zoom or Teams call for you to share your thoughts, challenges and ambitions for your innovation culture and I will listen, ask questions and give you some options to get the results you’re after.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *