I had the opportunity to join the first Vistage Executive Leadership Program for Europe this year. It’s a nine-month long program made up of three courses, all designed to help you build an organisation that’s led strategically with a growth mindset and geared up for innovation.

It’s hard work, and quite honestly I wasn’t expecting it to be so challenging when I applied for selection. But once I had committed to it, I decided that the opportunity deserves all my attention, and here we are now: at the end of the second course I’ve learnt much more about strategy than I thought I would, and we’ve made some giant leaps forward in figuring out what makes an organisation primed for innovation.

Do you need innovation?

The first, and most obvious question, is figuring out whether you need, or want, innovation.

At face value, it might seem like some companies would not benefit from innovation. I wouldn’t want to be on the operating table while my surgeon is trying out something for the first time. I don’t want our company auditors to be innovative; they should work within the parameters that are prescribed to them. A person whose job relies on producing something with precision and repetition can’t decide that innovation is now their job, because their job is to produce whatever they’re producing to the specifications they should be built to.

But even in those scenarios there is scope for innovation, and this course went a long way in opening my eyes to the benefits of innovation, no matter what you do. A surgeon might want to innovate in other parts of the process: is there a way in which she can make her patients feel more at ease, or can she innovate ways to help the recovery process be less painful? Can my accountant innovate to reduce the number of queries we receive when they’re auditing our accounts? Can someone working with precision and repetition find ways to keep their concentration levels higher by adding some gamification to their process?

Everyone can innovate, no matter what their role is, and the quicker everyone in your organisation learns that, the quicker you can innovate your way ahead of your competition.

What are some of the elements of an innovative organisation?

Now that we’ve established that every organisation can innovate, let’s take a look at the elements that can help you build a culture of innovation inside your organisation.

I’m going to have to skim over the building blocks, because I can’t condense an eight-week-long program into a few hundred words, but if you’re interested in any of the topics, you can read up more about it quite easily.

Some of the top elements that our cohort proposed included:

  • Work closely with your customers to listen to and to understand their needs;
  • Create a safe environment to generate and explore ideas, allowing tolerance for failure (as long as it stems from a risk that was taken intentionally);
  • Explore the unknown with curiosity and deep questioning;
  • Open the doors to ideas from anywhere in the company;
  • Make it easy for anyone to share ideas without judgement;
  • Share your vision for the organisation with everyone regularly. This will help ideas align with the direction that the organisation is taking.

Architecture and routines

Fostering a culture of innovation is not enough if your company, and your processes, are not set up for innovation.

Your architecture, how the people in your organisation interact with each other, should promote innovation by reducing friction between departments and by encouraging cross-team collaboration. Your reward system should also promote innovation, making it clear that people who bring new ideas to the table will be rewarded, maybe even if the idea is not a resounding commercial success.

The routines of the company, on the other hand, are the processes by which work is done. If your routines are too rigid to allow for innovation, it’s going to be extremely hard for you to see innovation from within, even if your culture is innovative and you don’t have architectural barriers to innovation.

And in the end…

Innovation and creativity are both subjects that you’d probably associate with a company like ours, but the challenge here was to look at the rest of the agency to figure out where we could apply creativity and innovation. Can we innovate our way into bringing down the average payment terms of our biggest clients? Can we innovate better ways of delivering better ROI to our clients?

Don’t ignore creativity just because you’re not in a creative business. It can help you improve your business, and your life, radically.

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