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How to build an inventive culture that seeds and feeds new ideas  

Raise your hand if your company wants to be more innovative. 

Now, keep it up if you’re struggling to do so. 

I’ll guess there are a lot of elevated hands out there. That’s because, for many organizations, innovation feels like such a big lift. And not a few leaders I’ve met mistakenly think they need to implement R&D departments and dedicate vast resources to innovation. 

But innovation really isn’t so complicated. Some simple tweaks to your mindset, culture, and priorities can yield fresh ideas.  

Here are some simple things you can do today to make your organization instantly more innovative:

Reframe failure

By now, I think we’ve all heard 3M’s most famous innovation story about the creation of the Post-in note. In 1968, Spencer Silver, a company scientist, failed to create a super-strong adhesive, instead turning out low-tack, reusable glue. 

For five years, Silver promoted his "solution without a problem" without success. It took a colleague, Art Fry, who, six years later, had the idea of using Silver’s adhesive to stick a bookmark in his hymn book. He worked on the idea using 3M's "permitted bootlegging" policy which gives employees time to tinker, and, long story short, the Post-In was born. 

There are so many nuggets of innovation wisdom in this story: finding the right solution for your problem, rather than starting with the problem;  widening the lens of possible applications. inviting curiosity; tenacity; and a company culture that encourages experimentation. 

Examine your garbage

One day, on vacation in Mexico last year, my wife and I got chatting with a friendly couple beside the pool. I learned that the husband had a management consulting business and had recently published a book, Lunch With Leaders, in which he shared highlights from conversations with a range of CEOs and founders.  

One was with the woman who started the Little Potato Company. If you’re not familiar, they sell bags of tiny tubers prized for their cute appearance on your dinner plate and creamy texture. They effectively created a new category in the produce aisle in the notoriously competitive and challenging food market. I checked with my local grocery store: a bag of baby potatoes, by weight, sells for four times the price of a bag of regular Russets. 

The innovation learned from this tasty example? How they took a product that was traditionally treated as waste and repositioned it as niche, almost gourmet. 

Another example is closer to my home in New Brunswick, where forestry is a major traditional industry. It may be a traditional industry, but it isn’t stuck in the past. Along with technological innovations and scientific advancements in growing trees, they’ve looked at their production line, including what was traditionally considered waste, to innovate new products. 

Today, they turn sawdust and chips that were once mill detritus into wood pellets, which fuel increasingly popular pellet stoves as consumers look for lower-price alternatives to expensive oil or electric heat. 

And, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my great friends at Nucor. In the 1960s, then CEO Ken Iverson spotted a need for an inexpensive source of steel for their Vulcraft joist fabrication business. In those days, steel was made in blast furnaces from iron and coking coal. And, old steel was merely disposed of in landfills. Iverson recognized the opportunity to remelt that scrap steel (garbage!) in electric arc furnaces and turn it into new steel. Since no one else wanted the scrap, that gave Nucor a huge cost advantage. Along with an incredible culture, they have used that innovation to grow into the largest steel maker in North America AND the largest (by weight) recycler in North America. As an added bonus, greenhouse gas emissions from recycling old steel into new is a fraction of the emissions from traditional blast furnaces.

In all these examples, the companies saw treasure, whereas others saw trash.  And even if you’re not a manufacturer, there are by-products of your process and services that can be spun off as value-added offerings.

Act like it's improv night

Innovations look wildly different, but they all rely on a particular mindset that’s willing to experiment, play and imagine. 

So, how do you promote that from within your organization? How do you nurture a culture that is open to new (maybe even wild-seeming) ideas and not dismissive of them? I’ve seen a lot of workplaces inadvertently crush good ideas before they see the light of day, in part due to a structural challenge: there are more people in your organization who can say no to an idea (almost everybody) than those who can say yes (typically a few leaders vested with authority).

So how do you change that nay-saying mental model, that paradigm within the organization? 

One easy way is to take an improv approach. Instead of “no, but…” being your default stance, try “yes, and…” 

It’s incredible what this simple shift to a more open and positive mindset can do to nurture potentially innovative ideas. While the first kills them right out of the gate, “yes, and…” encourages exploration. 

Swap ‘should’ for ‘could’ 

Another easy mindset shift is changing the questions your team asks. 

When solving a problem, the typical approach is, “What should we do?” 

This divergent line of inquiry aims for the “right” answer, which is limiting. 

Instead, ask, “What could we do?”

This is a far more open-ended and potentially generative question. Of course, eventually, all those “coulds” will have to converge. But starting with divergent will give you a much richer pool of ideas. 

Give the people what they want 

Innovation doesn’t need to come from within–it still “counts” if it comes from someone outside your organization.

Sometimes, it's just a matter of being alert and responsive to opportunities. 

This has been the case for us here at WhiteWater. Most of our product development ideas come from clients asking us questions. 

My first book, Get in Gear, resulted from a client asking, “How do we better translate our strategy to real results?” 

We had the pieces to that answer; we just had never put them together into this cohesive new form. 

Ditto another offering we’ve got in the works, a training program to develop leaders’ intellectual curiosity, that also came from a client request. We had done original research on the topic, which we found to be the top factor separating high-potential leaders (check out this post to learn more). We knew there was a need for this kind of program, but it was on the back burner. But we knew we had to act when another client asked about it. 

Our latest venture, a pilot program called Lead With Empathy, was the same. I talk and write about empathy a lot, but it wasn’t until a client asked for a program specifically focused on it that we created it. 

It might be the most significant thing we've ever done. And it’s completely client-driven.

Be alert to client-driven innovation. If you listen to your customers, they'll tell you what they need and help you innovate.

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