Innovation & Strategy

Inspired By The Best: What The World’s Most Innovative Companies Can Teach Us

What secrets drive a culture of innovation? It’s not the same everywhere but the world’s best companies can give certain lessons that apply to firms across Canada and the globe.

According to the Canadian government, the nation is in the middle of a global innovation race – and not always coming out easily ahead. While Canada has many assets and natural resources, the edge lies not just with its people but the way that they behave. For this reason, even prior to the pandemic push, the government had committed nearly $4 billion CAD to initiatives meant to jump start innovation culture across Canada.

However, for business owners and operators looking across the nation, the inspiration doesn’t always trickle down from government offices. Instead, some of the best insights and best practices come from private firms. These firms make intentional commitments, protect mental health, celebrate neurodiversity, and endeavor to make the workplace a place where everyone can feel safe and confident expressing new ideas. The paragraphs ahead look at why each of these elements is important to maintaining a culture of innovation.

Not just a statement – there’s commitment
The first thing that innovative companies do is embrace the fact that a culture of innovation doesn’t happen organically. While individual inventions and inspirations can certainly strike out of the blue, continuous innovation requires a commitment to making innovation possible. But how does a firm make a serious commitment in this way?

One of the big differentiators happens when pay – and especially managerial and executive pay – becomes tied to innovation. This might look like a given number of experiments run in a year, or whether any new proposals or programs were introduced by the team. Failing on the metric is defined as clinging to the status quo, and with no “safety net” to preserve salary and perks for status quo behavior, employees at every level get motivated to bring fresh, new, and yes, innovative practices into their daily work.

This does stand in sharp contrast to many “endorsements” of innovation culture. Some firms do wonderful PR around innovation but reward team members for stock price increases or eliminating variance in performance. One of the first lessons to remember about the world’s top firms is that when it comes to innovation, they follow the money and are willing to put their financial future on the line.

Mental health and neurodiversity are cherished and protected
Along with financially incentivizing innovation as a regular (not special) part of daily work, a second thing that sets innovative cultures apart for other companies is the emphasis placed on mental health. Again, it’s not a mere talking point. Instead, benefits packages and other incentives are set up to encourage employee’s to care for their minds, pursue continued education, and take regular periods to rest and recharge.

This care for the mental side of work extends to an enhanced awareness of neurodiversity. Workspaces may be designed to accommodate a need for reduced stimuli to enhance daily focus… or they may be crafted so as to be filled with tactile and visual stimuli to get brains moving. It depends on the employee mix, and it’s likely that offices can be customized far beyond what a typical cubicle farm might allow (when employees are even encouraged to co-locate at all).

Does this mean that innovative firms are dedicated to accommodating every quirk their employees may bring forward? Hardly. Instead, firms with innovative culture spend more time bringing their employees “on board” with a shared vision or purpose. By making the company’s goals a part of a mission or shared purpose, mental variety expressed in pursuit of the united goal becomes another element of the overall innovation culture rather than a distraction.

Actual, not theoretical, psychological safety is maintained
A final critical element of innovation cultures is that within these cultures, creating and maintaining psychological safety is a priority.

Psychological safety means that all employees, at every level, feel that they can openly express their opinions and ideas without fear of mockery or reprisal. Many companies say they value psychological safety, but it takes an ongoing effort to transition from theoretical to actual psychological safety within teams and across organizations.

It is, however, exceptionally important. According to Inc. magazine, employees who feel they work in a toxic environment have triple the risk of major depression, and often suffer other physical health issues. Google, trying to pinpoint what made a difference between development teams, noted that how smart a team was mattered far, far less than whether or not the members of the team trusted each other.

For psychological safety, companies need to encourage workers to be aware of their own mental processes. What makes them excited? What shuts them down? Where are they anxious about sharing ideas or opinions? Then, once this awareness has been established (perhaps as a part of the firm’s mental health practices) each worker should then endeavor to treat others as equal humans, listen and solicit questions in conversation, and build trust by respecting boundaries, being truthful, and honoring commitments.

It’s not an overnight process… but that may be the best closing lesson of all for anyone looking to nurture their own culture of innovation!

Innovation – and innovation culture – is an ongoing experience that needs continual attention and cultivation if it is going to thrive. It is possible to mimic the best by committing to innovation culture, protecting mental health, and fostering psychological safety, but exactly how that unfolds is a company-by-company experience. Still, for those willing to embrace the ongoing element, a vibrant and evolving innovation culture just might be the reward.