How to embed an innovative culture

Roger La Salle /

What’s the life expectency of your business?

The fact is, if you are not constantly working to move your products, processes, services and customers to an ever better place, you can be sure a competitor will soon move in to take your place.

I could cite Nokia as having taken the high ground in mobile phones from Motorola, and later BlackBerry having challenged Nokia, and later still, the

iPhone challenging all that came before!

One wonders who may be next.

There is little point in reading an interesting article or running some in-house training or inspirational “talking head” session with an expert in any field if these are just “one-shot wonders”.

The aim must be to embrace and embed the teaching into the business so that there is ongoing benefit. Otherwise, why bother all?

Change is not all that difficult

If you asked anybody to identify the country most renowned for the quality of its products, almost without exception, the answer would be Japan.

For anybody old enough to remember, in the 1950s anything coming from Japan was considered to be cheap junk. The early plastic-injection moulded toys, dolls, water pistols and games all came from Japan.

Yet today, Japanese products are considered to be leaders in terms of quality.

So what changed?

Historically, W Edwards Deming, the statistical quality control guru, is credited with leading the change initiative for the Japanese. He introduced the statistical methods of quality management and presided over the establishment of the now-famous ‘Japanese quality circles’.

Quality circles were instituted as regular meetings between staff groups in companies where products, processes and all aspects of the business were critiqued and reviewed.

The effect of this, and how it changed the Japanese manufacturing and business culture, is the subject of many case studies.

Can my business do this?

In general, unless there is some particular disharmony within an organisation, most people wish to make a contribution and wish to be seen as a useful and valuable part of the team. This mindset needs to be harnessed for the good of the organisation.

To achieve this it is first necessary to train people in innovation and opportunity capture methods and then once people are equipped with tools, the next step is to form Innovation Circles.

These circles should be cross-functional teams that need only comprise four or five people who meet periodically, perhaps over lunchtime once every two or three weeks, where the lunch is provided courtesy of the business.

At these sessions the teams, with the guidance of a team leader, should use innovation tools provided to explore innovations and opportunities for the business.

Experience in establishing these teams has found people are eager to become involved and to make a contribution that will be acknowledged and perhaps rewarded.

After several months of innovating in team meetings there should be a presentation by each team to senior management on the progress of their work. Perhaps annually there should be a competition for the best innovations, with rewards for the winning teams.

Rewards need to be little more than recognition; perhaps a night out to dinner for the winning team and their partners, sponsored by the company.

What is the message?

Without innovation to drive change, most businesses will ultimately find themselves under threat, whether from competitors with better products, or those with better service approaches or new and better ways of doing business.

  1. The message must come from the top. Without top-down commitment, nothing will happen. Why should an employee “go the extra mile” if the boss is not really interested?

  1. Senior management must be “on board”, interested and committed, and moreover know and understand the processes.

How can employees be engaged in the journey if senior management has no real understanding of what they are doing?

  1. Staff at many levels need to be trained in some simple thinking techniques that encompass:


Opportunity capture

Simple and fast “pass/failure” evaluation

  1. Innovation circles (teams) should be formed from cross-functional groups.

The time commitment of these people is minimal, and the outputs are quite remarkable.

  1. Rewards, mainly recognition, and perhaps a weekend away with partners, need to be given to successful innovation circles.

Judged perhaps by six- or 12-monthly competitions.

 Organisations must capture, listen to, and act upon the ideas emanating from their staff and clients during everyday operations.


Before any attempt is made to begin the journey to inculcate an innovation/opportunity culture, there are first four essential questions that need to be addressed:

What are you trying to achieve?

Where are you now?

How will you measure progress?

What outcome defines success?

Each of these questions should be answered in a single sentence statement.


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