• September 14, 2014

Five Must-Haves for Creating a Culture of Innovation

I’m not one to brag, but about 30 years ago, I worked with a team that did something truly remarkable. We created a logic analysis system—an instrument for troubleshooting and understanding the performance of electronic systems. It had a flexible color graphical interface that could be populated with modules that didn’t even yet exist. And with this new machine, we created a new category of product—an architecture in technology three decades ahead of its time … and one that Hewlett Packard Enterprise was the first to commercialize.

Why am I sharing this with you? Because it illustrates the importance of having a culture of innovation to move the chess pieces. The HPE environment 30 years ago, like the environment today, fostered and prioritized innovation. Enterprises that want to stay competitive, earn the title of market leader or industry trendsetter, must do the same.

To create a culture of innovation, there are five key elements that must be present.

No. 1: Time to Think

Innovation happens when there’s a change in the status quo, but it won’t happen without some good old-fashioned brain power. Those who can innovate—who are driven to do so—need time to reflect, envision, imagine. For the enterprise to create a culture of innovation, it must give employees time to do something completely different—something outside of their normal jobs, roles, and expected deliverables.

In the abovementioned story, my team had just completed an enormous all-encompassing project and our supervisors gave us a few weeks to decompress. Rather than sit around twiddling our thumbs (there was no Facebook or Candy Crush to keep us occupied), we self-proclaimed nerds started building things on an electronic bench. Prototypes followed. Improvements happened. And within a few months, we evolved an idea into a game-changer.

To foster innovation, enterprises have to specifically allocate time for employees to think, and enforce its importance and role in enterprise innovation. Maybe it’s one afternoon a week or maybe it’s a week-long breather in between projects. But time to think is crucial.

No. 2: Faith in Talent

Management must believe that its talent has the skills, motivation, and moxie to innovate. In other words, if the player is hot, give them the ball. Management must step back and rely on the talent to do what they do best, without getting in the way.

No. 3: Management Guts

Management has to be willing to take risks. It has to be comfortable with change, not knowing outcomes, not having things written in black and white. In addition to believing in the talent, management has to believe lack of change is more dangerous than an efficient status quo.

No. 4: Intellectual Diversity of Workforce

Change happens when people of different ages, races, and cultures come together to work and create. Enterprises benefit when their teams are a mix of young professionals and veterans, a mix of rash thinkers and deliberate types. Young workers don’t know what they don’t know … and experienced workers have valuable perspectives. Putting diversity in play creates innovative ideas.

No. 5: Highly Sustained Interpersonal Interaction

No matter how many digital tools are available, and no matter how complex or cool the technology, there is no replacement for face-to-face communication. To create a culture of innovation, an enterprise must get people in a room to curate and create strategies. Personal interaction is imperative. People who see each other daily, sit near each other, and can have an impromptu white board discussion, have the greatest chance of building chemistry and trust.

To create and sustain a competitive edge, it’s truly a world of innovate or die. Enterprises have to take risks, embrace uncertainty and dissonance, and disrupt the norm in order to evolve. And when they innovate, they create remarkable things … which are often worthy of a three-decade-long brag.

Will Allen

About the author: Will Allen is an HP Inc. Fellow and an inventor and innovator in the HP Printing and Personal Systems Office of the CTO. Allen previously was a Lead Strategist in HP Enterprise Service’s Office of the CTO and leader of the emerging technologies initiative. For 30 years, Allen has been deeply engaged with inventing and commercializing digital technology, contributing to HPE programs with global impact in instrumentation, inkjet printing at all scales, digital projection displays, and services.