Advice, Leadership Development

How To Foster A Culture Of Innovation At Workplace

Times are changing, nowadays, the most talented employees no longer feel satisfied to just come into work, do the hours and leave. They want to feel inspired, they want to feel challenged and they want to feel empowered. Therefore, it is important to create a culture of innovation where employees are encouraged, supported and rewarded to come up with ideas that will move things forward. For startups and Internet companies, this is even more important to meet changing needs and demands of customers while making the best use of the evolving technologies.

From my experience in running a startup company and leading innovative teams within multinational organisations, here are five tips that prove to be helpful.

1. Have a set time

Google, HP and some technology companies have a dedicated time for innovation. In the case of Google, it is 20% time which allows employees to work on their own projects one day a week. This enabled a lot of innovative ideas to be born, for example, Gmail and Adsense were created from innovation time. Many developers usually have great ideas that never see the light of the day because they are always too busy finishing whatever projects that they are working on, so unless companies set some time aside for ideas to bubble up and get validated, the companies will never find out about these ideas. It might be unrealistic for smaller companies to allow one day a week for innovation. In this case, a hackathon once a month or once a quarter will work better. The important thing for the organisation is to have something in place to start with and then improve and amend as required instead of not having anything at all.

2. Have a goal

In order for innovation to be really beneficial for both employees and organisations, there needs to be a clear goal for ideas. The goal, example, can tie in together with the organisation’s mission, in alignment with the organisation’s strategy or as simple as increase in revenue or increase in user adoption rate. As with any goals, these goals need to be S.M.A.R.T, specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. Anything that is developed or innovated duration innovation time should somehow help the organisation. I’ve learnt that allowing innovation without structure or goal actually is a wasted technical resource and energy.

3. Make it voluntary

While having and encouraging innovation time is great, the truth is it is not for every employee. Some employees are simply not interested in coming up with ideas or doing something that is not part of their job description. Therefore, innovation time should not demand mandatory participation from every employee even though it is available to every employee.

4. Have a governing committee or sponsors

Innovation committee is a group of people who can help with ideas, answer questions, give feedback or just being supportive generally. They are also innovators themselves and understand the value of giving freedom and autonomy to employees while ensuring alignment. They inspire employees to put in a little bit more effort, be more productive and think big.

5. Have a process

It is important to have a process and a clear path for those with great ideas. A good process might be where ideas are documented at the beginning before implementation begins to help with thought process. Secondly, some time is given to validate an idea, for example, 1 – 2 days to create a rough prototype and showcase it to innovation sponsors. The innovation sponsors will be able to recognise any good idea and take the lead in investing more time and resources for the idea. Once ideas are chosen, other employees within the organisation can contribute to it. There are many people with different expertise within a tech start up, such as product manager, designer, UX, front-end, back-end, QA, etc, and all of these people can volunteer to help in any area that they wish. For example, if a developer wants to volunteer to be a QA, that’s not an issue. This way, employees can expand their skillsets while contributing to something bigger.

Creating a culture of innovation is not easy as it requires effort from all parties involved, from founders and engineering managers to employees but it is important to attract and retain top talents and build great organisations. As John F. Kennedy said, we do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon, we choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”
– John F. Kennedy, 12th of September, 1962

If you enjoyed this article, you might like to check out my latest book on engineering management. It’s a practical guide for engineering managers at tech companies.

The Engineering Manager’s How-to Guide is very targeted for engineering managers, and in this book, you won’t find generic advice like having regular 1:1’s, giving feedback, etc. Yes, those things are absolutely important, but they are not specific to an engineering manager’s role. It’s my goal to make sure this book provides a concise and actionable guide for engineering managers, the specific and niche content for engineering managers that you won’t find in other leadership and management books.