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Building a culture of innovation: How to change company culture

In a survey of almost 300 leaders at large organizations, nearly half identified “cultural issues” as the biggest obstacle to innovation. It makes sense—established businesses have established ways of doing things. They often value predictable revenue growth and operational excellence over new ideas and perspectives.

When these ideas become more entrenched in company cultures, people who follow the rules travel a well-worn path to promotion, while proponents of change can feel discouraged and outnumbered.

But for many businesses large and small, innovation is now a make-or-break must—particularly at a time when rapidly shifting realities demand creative solutions. If your company is embarking on its own cultural transformation, here are some ways you can encourage divergent thinking and ensure those with new ideas are welcomed.

Encourage experimentation and embrace failure

Organizations can instill a culture of innovation by increasing the overall amount of experimentation and eliminating negative repercussions of failure.

Encourage employees to conduct frequent experiments—even if the success rate is low, the total number of wins will still be significant. If you’re only running a handful of experiments, there may be few or zero successes, making the failures more notable and any further testing discouraged. But the more tests you conduct, the more likely it is that some of them will pan out, and the failures will sting less.

Not that the failures need to sting—to truly help employees conquer the fear of failure, reframe those unsuccessful experiments as worthwhile learning opportunities. Only valuing successful tests reinforces a culture that’s reluctant to take risks and apt to rely on familiar solutions. Acknowledge that mistakes and failures are an inevitable (and sometimes necessary) part of innovation. Plus, some of the most innovative insights come from “failure” and a desire to figure out what went wrong.

Stewart Butterfield’s repeated failures in game development gave birth to one successful tech creation after another.

A prototype he created for Ludicorp called Game Neverending went live in 2002 and closed just two years later, but a set of features designed for the game became the basis of the photo sharing service Flickr. After selling Flickr to Yahoo, Butterfield revived the same concept for a game called Glitch. It failed too, but an experimental internal communications tool he and his team built for it formed the basis of Slack, now a platform with over 10 million daily active users that’s become an increasingly vital tool for maintaining team cohesion amid widespread separation.

Celebrate learnings and avoid a risk-averse approach to experimentation: It’s one of the biggest impediments to innovation.

Empower everyone to contribute to a culture of innovation

Many people require a certain level of independence and authority to feel free to innovate. You can help by supporting those workers with the space and incentives they need.

People are at their most creative when they’re active and engaged, but not overwhelmed—ensure that employees’ workloads keep them challenged but not overburdened. For example, try encouraging employees to schedule two hours a week for creative thinking, writing, or proposing new ideas. The right amount of time to allot will vary by person, team, and organization, but it should be enough that employees can produce something meaningful. Once it’s scheduled, help people adjust their workloads accordingly.

The more flexibility and autonomy your workplace provides, the more room you create for innovation. The digital economy (and now the novel coronavirus) has already helped normalize flexible work hours, telecommuting, and fully remote jobs, but those aren’t the only markers of independence. True autonomy means being able to own your own decisions and prioritization—at the Ritz-Carlton, for example, employees are free to impress guests by spending up to $2,000 per customer per day in whatever way they think is best.

Your company can also generate more unique perspectives by developing and rewarding career changers or people who move to a new field after beginning in another. Look to employees with varied backgrounds, active extracurricular interests, or a proven track record of tackling new things. If they’re interested, support them in switching to a different department that could benefit from some new blood.

We certainly celebrate career changers at Textio, where we’ve had recruiters switch to sales, PR experts turn to coding, and co-founders who went to school for music composition and linguistics.

Textio has also prompted innovation by recruiting for and instilling a shared trait and cultural principle of “low ego but have a point of view.” This helps us bring varied ideas to the table while also maintaining the flexibility and agility to commit to one plan as a team.

Another example of broad employee empowerment: has a remarkably democratic system that allows any employee to run an experiment that will affect the user experience for millions of customers—no approval from management necessary. There are still healthy debates among employees about what’s best for the company, and anyone can stop an experiment if they notice it’s gone awry. But by allowing everyone to test out their ideas, the company ensures that no potentially brilliant innovations get ignored.

Bring in fresh perspectives to change company culture

Changing your sourcing and recruitment strategies can help you hire more culture adds who can contribute innovative, outside-the-box solutions. A new approach to hiring can also break the pattern of only hiring “culture fits” that perpetuate corporate monocultures.

Job posts that are heavy on strict compliance language risk alienating the fresh outsider perspectives your company may need. Requiring advanced degrees and a certain number of years of field experience are ways of enforcing the status quo and limiting your talent pool.

By contrast, job posts that use growth-mindset language demonstrate an openness to creative thinkers, career changers, and other innovative culture adds. Growth-mindset words and phrases like persevere, work hard, and opportunity to grow all emphasize the idea that candidates can develop new talents and skills on the job.

On the other hand, fixed-mindset language (terms like high performer, expert, and natural talent) sets a high barrier for entry. According to Textio data, using fixed- instead of growth-mindset language reduces the overall number of qualified candidates who apply and skews the gender balance of the talent pool toward men.

Textio’s augmented writing software enables you to write job posts that appeal to a wider, more diverse field of candidates while emphasizing a commitment to innovation. When Zillow Group started using Textio, its goal was to infuse job posts and other recruiting materials with language that better communicated its cultural values, one of which is “We nurture innovation.” Textio helped Zillow increase its usage of language like state of the art, new technologies, and dynamic, which not only positioned the company as an innovative tech leader but also helped it fill roles more quickly and appeal to a more diverse talent pool. Since switching to Textio, for the first time ever Zillow was on the coveted Fortune Best Places to Work list in 2019, in addition to collecting a number of awards for its innovations.

And Zillow is far from the only Textio client to be formally recognized as one of the world’s most innovative companies. In addition to evolving how you hire, Textio also helps you keep employees engaged around the shared company values that constitute your employer brand—like, for example, innovation!

Build the foundation you need to create a culture of innovation

The talent that you hire, retain, and empower to innovate will determine your growth and success as a company. Textio provides a way for organizations of all sizes to quickly start recruiting for difference and diversity of talent. It also helps anchor new and existing employees around shared company values that can spur innovation.

Language is the foundation of all culture, and building a culture of innovation starts with being informed and intentional with your words.

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