Unlocking Innovation (Part IV of VI): What is the ideal culture to innovate?

This is a section of a six part series of articles that focuses on unpacking the complexity of innovation and showing the reality that innovation is attainable to everyone. Our goal from this series is to spark conversations and get people to look at innovation, creativity, and leadership from a different perspective.

An environment of innovation?

One of the most challenging things about trying to innovate is that people often think that new and ambitious ideas are great, necessary, and a worthy investment. However, this position only seems to present itself after the fact. Innovation is something that many people get behind once it has been successful and they are often the same people that put up roadblocks when others were trying to innovate. Many times the conversation that leads to a mission to innovate goes as follows: “Do something bold and new, but don’t spend a lot of time and money on it, and make sure it works so we don’t look bad….but no pressure”. Sound familiar? This is a ‘Set Up to Fail’ situation that is more common than it should be, and often the sign of an organization that is doomed to collapse.

Now, this situation makes logical sense (somewhat), it is a reflection of the environment that many people are in when they are trying to innovate or do something new. Often people see innovation as their last chance. Their current plan is not sustainable, they need to find something new or else they won’t be able to stay in business. This approach creates a Hail Mary situation putting pressure on a team to be innovative in order to keep the lights on and this is not really where you want to be. Real innovation is not something that is best done under the gun and on a tight timeline with little to no room for error. If you really want to be bold, evolve and revolutionize your industry then you need to create a culture and environment that fosters innovation, not one that demands it on a whim with no real support or margin for miscalculation.

Reward ideas

There is a good TEDx talk by Barbara Corcoran about rethinking failure (an idea we will come back to) in which she talks about one of the things she does in her companies. She has a portion of her operating budget to invest in innovation, to reward efforts and ideas and to allow those creative minds she employs to have some resources to try out something new.

“I dedicated 5% of all operating budgets at every office I ever opened as mad money, fun money. And their job was to spend it — to spend it before the year ended so that they could discover new things and everybody spent that 5%. And with that 5%, we discovered so many new things. It would have never happened if it wasn’t pre-funded” – Barbara Corcoran

A business leader of her caliber gets to where she is by pushing against convention, being bold and taking the right kind of risks.

Let’s take a hard look at failing

To follow in line with Barbara’s TEDx Talk, let’s rethink what failing and failure are and how they impact our efforts and aspirations. I have written a previous article about failing and mistakes, titled How to Master the Art of Mistakes, where I talk about the difference between failing and failure. There is a lot of good background material on this topic, so if you get a chance give it a read. For our purposes now, we need to understand why failing doesn’t make you a failure. Failing is a sign of effort, a by-product of innovation and creativity. What makes a failure is giving up on the effort to be creative, of trying something new, and not learning from the inevitable missteps and mistakes that you make along the way.

To successful innovators, failing is a regular Tuesday. It is the cost of doing business. So, we need to change our perceptive of failing and if we truly want to create an environment that truly supports innovation, we need to create a culture that embraces failing.

How to Create a Culture of Innovation

Step 1: Make failing part of the plan. Just like Barbara, understand that taking bold leaps is the only way to make great gains. Dedicate resources, time, and effort into trying things that will most likely fail. From a budget, standpoint set a small “New Initiatives” budget that has no outcomes and can free up some resources. From a staffing perspective, assign a couple of hours a week (maybe on a Friday afternoon) to let staff meet, get their creative juices to flow, and work on their own ideas. These ideas, dollars, and efforts are likely to go nowhere but at the very least the failings will evoke new learning and allow staff to feel heard and supported.

Step 2: Mitigate the Risk. Look for ways to get the most out of every step. Create efficient use for your actions, so that way if you make a mistake there are other ways that your efforts can still meet assigned outcomes and are not wasted. See our previous article on Maximum Utility for more detail.

Step 3: Unfinished is the new norm. If we are going to be proud of our mistakes and our failings, then we need to create a mechanism that allows for us to shed the pieces that do not work and keep the ideas that do work. This is really a simple solution; you need to embrace the concept of the Beta Test; have a working beta version that is promoted as unfinished and will be continuously updated and modified. Embrace beta testing, MVPs (Minimum Viable Product), and living documents. These let you accomplish your tasks, while still being open to constant improvements and adjustments. Most bold and innovative solutions come gradually and over time, not right out of the gate.

Step 4: Confident Leadership. This is really the most important part. There is no way to create a culture that embraces the benefits of failing and fosters innovation without confident leadership. Someone has to stand up in front of shareholders, funders, and the press to justify why these actions were taken, why there are failings, and why these decisions where made. The leaders need to also manage the expectations of the staff, the stakeholders and the public to teach them what success looks like and keep everyone committed to innovation. If there is not someone willing to be held accountable for the struggles that come with innovation, then there is nobody qualified to take the credit for the accomplishments that come from innovation.

The Takeaway

Fear of failing, or not understanding the reality that failing is a part of learning and improving, makes innovation impossible. The latitude to experiment, tweak, revisit, challenge, and be creative needs to be present to create a culture that truly fosters innovation. Sometimes it can take finding 99 ways to not do something before you find the 1 innovative way to do it better than everyone else.


Roman 3 is an advising and solutions firm that specializes in inspiring progressive action, creating a culture of innovation, and assisting organizations in implementing transformative change. We help you build capacity, collaborate, be progressive, and grow to your full potential. For more information on our services and support reach out to us at info@roman3.ca