The Culture of Innovation

Innovation does not depend on just one person, or even a few—it stems from a culture that encourages and breeds innovative thinking.

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In today’s fast-paced business environment, innovation is the key element that helps a company not only to survive, but thrive. Success comes from new products with innovative differentiation, agile business processes, and expanding markets and sales channels—all of which are vital for achieving competitive advantage.

In the past, when quality and cost were limiting factors, innovation was about developing new products and then putting them through production improvement processes to reduce costs and ensure quality.

Today, innovation is much more than just products. It’s about taking corporate organizations built for efficiency and rewiring them for creativity and success in fast-moving business environments. It’s about reinventing business processes, building entirely new markets and generating new supply chains that meet global customer needs. More importantly, as the Internet and globalization widen the pool of possibilities, it’s about selecting and executing the right ideas and bringing them to market quickly and effectively.

An innovative organization must move forward in the face of old management thinking, old financial ratios, and guidelines and controls. During difficult times, downsizing, streamlining, and cost-cutting often get precedence over new ideas, which are often seen as impractical.

Most companies find it very difficult to breed innovation from within, and can only do it by importing new leaders—starting at the top. Clearly, much depends on that choice. And the new “turnaround” CEO often brings along several other key managers, already attuned to the teamwork necessary for the process.

Innovation does not depend on just one person, or even a few—it stems from a culture that encourages and breeds innovative thinking. Every organization has a unique ethos that drives its success or failure in the face of accelerating change. The culture is the collective personality that embodies the values, beliefs, philosophies, attitudes and operating norms. It boils down to “how we do things around here.”

In January 2007, once again Apple stole the limelight by introducing the innovative new iPhone—the name is in dispute, though the innovative product is widely acclaimed. Against powerful major competitors—the likes of Motorola and Nokia—Apple introduced a new design that is expected to capture significant market share. Beyond CEO Steve Jobs’ charisma, several new features generated spontaneous applause with what I term the “Wow factor.”

The Apple Ethos

Consider the way of thinking in the Apple culture; you can see it in both the hits and misses. The Lisa and Newton were both recklessly ambitious projects that failed. But both pioneered features such as the mouse and a graphical user interface that had previously existed only in research labs. Apple has always had
a grander vision. It wasn’t enough to create good products; the aim was to reinvent the products. Apple executives were not afraid of risk. Often, key decisions were based on personal likes and dislikes—not just those of Steve Jobs, but of others who “owned” the projects. At Apple, there is no micromanagement responsibility is pushed down; talented people are let loose.

Apple’s biggest accomplishment can’t be measured by growth of product revenues or design awards.
 The biggest long-term impact de-rives from the company’s culture of innovation and its existence as an incubator of the best designers and engineers. When Apple’s talent moves on, they take some of the culture with them and go on to create great products elsewhere. And even when they’ve exited, the Apple culture still thrives.

Developing an innovative culture takes dynamic leadership with the vision, strength and stamina to imbue an organization with that special something that makes the difference. 

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