How to Create Space for Innovation

Innovate or die. Disrupt or be disrupted. It’s that simple.


Neither innovation nor disruption is a new term, but organizations are compelled to understand them in new ways because the strategic business environment around the world is evolving so rapidly. Failure to turn disruption risk into disruption opportunity is not an option for companies that want to compete and grow.

In fact, transforming an organization trying to drive rapid growth, or one integrating cultures post M&A, or a stagnant company operating in pure survival mode into an agile, creative, risk-taking place where innovation thrives isn’t easy. It takes time. But we’ve seen it happen, and the change would astonish you. Employees are happier, the mood is lighter, collaboration is rampant, and the companies are growing.

When organizations come to us they seek growth or they want to make up ground they are losing to competitors. More often than not, they are concerned about new, non-traditional companies challenging their position. They are concerned about protection – mitigating disruption. We help them focus on creation – maximizing the opportunity that disruption presents. What they are really asking is how they can create a culture of innovation.

After we examine their business and talk with their employees, we often find that their culture is rooted in the Industrial Age. They value efficiency and standardization over creativity and collaboration. Each department and employee has a certain job to do in a certain way. If employees step out of the norm, they risk criticism or punishment. They are encouraged to stay in line, ask permission, do their jobs, and put in their time. They are rewarded with a paycheck. They are risk averse and uncomfortable with failure; they are wealth-protectors.

So how does a company change its culture? Anyone can create a culture of innovation – not just hip companies in Silicon Valley – but it starts by understanding what matters for innovation in the future.  Ideally, there would be a simple step-by-step checklist and a set-in-stone timeline, but it doesn’t work that way. There are some critical concepts to understand, and most of them start with and require strong commitment from leadership.

The key to changing a culture is the quality of the organization’s leadership. Leaders have a huge responsibility for creating a space for innovation, and the work begins with their own fears and biases. They must let go of control and resist all urges to micro-manage. Strong leaders understand that their job is to enable creation, to build teams, and to create trust, not to be the smartest person in the room, or to control every decision or project. Fostering innovation within a company requires leaders to focus far less on policy and process and far more on strong values and trust. They must make the values more than just words, they must drive and bound your culture. As a successful leader, you must:


  • Let go of the notion that strong leaders must control all aspects of the company’s operations, both day to day and strategic
  • Create strong, clear, and purposeful values to bound the organization and drive a vibrant culture based on shared values and trust
  • Recruit, empower, and enable tomorrow’s leaders and thinkers. Build a team smarter, faster, stronger, and sometimes far younger than yourself.
  • Motivate. Be the champion of the team, their ideas, their successes, and their failures. Drive the positive learning across the team.

And most importantly:


  • Embrace, embody, and live the organization’s values. Use them to guide your decisions, how you communicate, and how you grow.


By delegating to competent staff members and allowing them to make decisions without your input, you are extending your ability to get things done. You are also sending a critical message that you trust your staff to solve problems. Working in small groups, individuals can begin to connect with their colleagues and start to establish trust. With trust, they can be vulnerable and share a crazy idea that might be worth a million dollars or might be a real dud. They find acceptance in the group, and other team members become willing to share their own crazy ideas. By demonstrating your trust in your employees, you help them build trust in each other.

The process takes time. Remember the expression, “Don’t rush to failure.” You have to balance speed with the desire to “fail fast” and “fail smart,” but sheer speed alone does not always solve problems. It often creates new ones. It took some time to build your old culture; it will take some time to build a new one.
Success is not guaranteed in the short term, nor should it be. Trust and vulnerability leave room for failure. Failure is where you learn. Thomas Edison is quoted as saying, “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Your employees, however, can’t work without information. As a leader, it is your job to communicate clarity in purpose and principle, instead of a focus on process and policy. It is also your responsibility to provide boundaries. We refer to this as freedom within a framework. The freedom is tied to purpose and principle, not command and control.

In fact, you’ll have to give up control for the transformation to work. You must trust your employees to solve problems instead of doing it all yourself. You’ll have to escape your old mindset and let go. Don’t worry, however, you still have a full set of responsibilities.

You must become the champion of the new culture. You are the head cheerleader and the chief morale officer, the champion of the values, the culture, and the team, and you can’t let down. Remember, it takes time, and failure is inherent in the process. But the rewards are vast – your company’s health, your employees’ satisfaction with their jobs, and the ability to compete well into the next century.

Call us if you’d like to get started today.



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