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A Culture of Innovation Doesn't Have to Be a Fantasy

To create a culture where innovation can thrive, follow these four requirements.

ideas coming out of a lightbulb

A culture of innovation sounds like utopia. Imagine a world where every person you work with is full of great ideas and has the support and tools to execute them. Truly innovative company cultures attract and retain creative people — that's part of the allure. That culture attracts people who are fundamentally operating in a different space. But while the end goal of innovation is very enticing, most organizations are not wired for innovation and lack the fortitude needed to get there.

The word "innovation" itself is so overused that its meaning has become muddied. When used as simply a marketing label, an umbrella for a short-lived initiative, or a place for tinkering with new toys and no mechanism to capture real differentiated value, it's simply innovation theater. When everything is innovation, nothing is innovation.

We'll define it as something new, novel, and valuable to the organization. Enterprises have a tough time with novelty, so if it doesn't feel uncomfortable, we're probably not pushing ourselves.

VUCA is an acronym that comes from the military and refers to the volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity of general conditions and situations. You could say that innovation is VUCA'ed up. That means to create a culture where innovation can thrive, you need some special rules and considerations. Here are four requirements and what you can expect when building a culture of innovation at your organization.

Related:Why IT Innovation Is Slowing Down

1. A Culture of Innovation Requires Deliberate Practice

Rote motion is simply repeating something 100 times to groove a set of muscle memories. It's good to get a pattern established, but often leads to just "going through the motions." While we need to establish a pattern for innovation flow, don't let it become something that's forced. The first few times you try innovating it's not going to be smooth. Inspect and adapt the approach and figure out where to adjust to get the pattern established, and then nurtured. Every organization is different, but success patterns are similar.

2. A Culture of Innovation Requires Different Personalities

Partner with the pioneering "ideas people" who are comfortable with ambiguity and good at the bolder, scarier parts of innovation. Balance the team with drivers who can get things done, details people to keep you on track, and strong collaborators who glue it together.

3. A Culture of Innovation Requires Protection and Incubation Time

Innovation requires space and time. It's not going to adhere to a nice quarterly operating and reporting schedule. Progress is key, but provide time-space for the idea to develop and build momentum before freaking out that "it's not working" and snuffing it out of existence. After that first successful breakthrough, avoid the temptation to then put innovation on a schedule. Keep in mind, most enterprises get new innovative ideas through acquisition or by creating a separate business unit to protect them until they're able to stand on their own. Look at organizations that are transforming through innovation, and they will most likely have a completely separate division with different rules and metrics that protect them.

Related:Digital Innovation Work Goes to Waste as Executives Vacillate

4. A Culture of Innovation Requires Alignment

You have to decide from a company perspective where you're going to make your innovation bets, and where you're fine with a "me too" offering that's presentable. Innovation is cost and has a high failure rate. You can see this in action with the low percentage of startups that become unicorns versus those that flame out. You can absolutely let other people be the innovator and buy it when the timing is right to either become your new transformation, or to simply have an on-par offering. Modern major pharmaceutical companies are a great example. They have research arms, but the truly novel IP comes from acquisition, plugging into the development, manufacturing, distribution, and marketing machine.

Innovation Isn't Conjured Out of Thin Air

We all know the trope of the lone genius having a flash of insight that leads to a great invention. That's a nice story, but it's usually not how it happens. The most disruptive ideas are often a combination of percolating things hitting at the right moment, with the right people, the right structure, and packaged in the right experience. Apple didn't just conjure the iPod out of thin air. The whole concept of the portable player and music store was one that was shopped around Silicon Valley for years. Apple was the master of user experience, creating an elegant, simple device with a seamless, convenient music store. The confluence of ideas packaged into a sticky and fashionable experience.

As you go through the cycle of innovation more and more, you will find that you have to build less of the foundational pieces over time. Be prepared for the fact that when you're first trying to innovate, your cycle times are going to be a little longer while you build up momentum. Don't feel bad if innovation isn't really fast out of the gate. Just keep being intentional about trying to build up that critical mass, so that each swing you take gets a little bit easier. Think about it as deliberate practice — the deliberate practice of innovation.

Your innovation strategy is just as important as the current money maker, as well as "run the business" parts of your organization. Be intentional and strategic about your model for innovation and stay true to that discipline. Leaders must be vigilant and provide the space, support, and air cover from threats to innovation. Innovation must be a part of your structure in some form, because at some point, the future success or failure of your business will depend on it.

Nate Berent-Spillson is vice president of engineering at Launch by NTT DATA.

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