3 Ways Any Company Can Build A Culture Of Innovation

Here’s something leaders at large organizations don’t understand: You don’t have to be a startup to innovate. As established companies lose market share to smaller, more innovative competitors, most still refuse to acknowledge and change the antiquated structures and mindsets that keep them from becoming more innovative themselves.

The excuse is always the same. “Disruption is for startups. We’re too big to innovate, so we’ll just keep doing what we’re good at.” Sadly, this approach doesn’t work anymore, and the longer these companies keep their heads in the sand, the further behind they’ll be when they realize “what they’re good at” just isn’t good enough.

Build a Culture of Innovation

Innovation isn’t something you do once, then fall back into the same established patterns. For a company to remain competitive in a fast-changing marketplace, innovation must be baked into its structure, its workforce and its culture. The truly innovative company is alive with ideas, fueled by a highly engaged workforce, and structured in such a way as to support creative problem-solving.

Here are just a few ways any company can weave innovation into its organizational fabric.

Internal Hackathons

Hosting a hackathon is one of the best ways to energize your workforce, generate fresh ideas and begin to build a culture of innovation, and an increasing number of companies outside the tech space are starting to catch on, notably Accenture and TD Ameritrade.

In a hackathon, participants form teams and collaborate to conceptualize and prototype a new product or solution. But contrary to what a first-timer might assume, hackathons aren’t just feel-good events for programmers. They’re highly effective ways to find real solutions to real organizational problems, and to do so quickly.

Although hackathons are typically associated with software development, the goal of the enterprise hackathon isn’t necessarily to develop new technology. Instead, the hackathon should be thought of as a way to “hack away” at old processes and old ways of thinking.

Angelhack founder Sabeen Ali describes the enterprise hackathon this way: “For Fortune 500s, it’s more than just a sleepover, it’s a change initiative.”

Cross-Functional Teams

Without the continuous infusion of fresh information, fresh eyes and fresh perspectives into the problem-solving process, any team will continue to generate the same tired solutions to the same old problems.

Some of the best, most creative solutions can be found by teams with members from diverse areas of the organization. But in many companies, long-established functional silos are to blame for stifling creativity and hampering the formation of new and innovative ideas. Too often, a mini-culture forms within each department, and an “us” vs. “them” mentality develops.

In contrast, when communication barriers are eliminated and employees are encouraged to collaborate cross-functionally around a shared goal, they gain a broader view of the problem and find an expanded range of possible solutions at their disposal. The most effective cross-functional teams are also autonomous, which enables them to take an idea from conception to market in a very short period of time.

In an article for Harvard Business Review, author Behnam Tabrizi writes: “Cross-functional teams have become ubiquitous because companies need to speed innovations to market. The teams are like arteries, connecting parts of the body, enabling the whole organism to renew itself.”

20% and Stretch Projects

Google may have unofficially done away with its famed “20% time” policy, but that doesn’t mean the program wasn’t a success. Products like Google News, Gmail and AdSense all began as “20% projects,” projects chosen by the employees themselves, based on their own ideas of what would most benefit the company. Other companies with similar programs refer to these projects as “passion projects.”

For most companies, the idea of allowing employees to spend 20% of their time on passion projects is a frightening one, but the amount of time spent on these projects is less important than the projects themselves. The real benefit of a 20% program (beyond a more engaged workforce) is that it serves as an incubator for fresh and innovative ideas.

A stretch project, as defined by Josh Bersin of Deloitte, is a project or task given to employees which is beyond their current knowledge or skills level in order to ‘stretch’ employees developmentally. The stretch assignment challenges employees by placing them into uncomfortable situations in order to learn and grow.

Just as cross-functional collaboration can bring new perspectives to old problems, enabling employees to step outside their job roles gives them a broader organizational perspective, which breathes new life into every aspect of their work; and pushing them slightly outside their comfort zones forces them into new ways of thinking and problem-solving.

In today’s innovation-driven marketplace, one thing is true: you disrupt or you die. Those organizations that make the commitment to build a culture of innovation will not only survive, but thrive, even in the face of competition from disruptive startups.

Take your first step toward building a more innovative culture by downloading The Definitive Guide to Enterprise Hackathons.