Isabel Nyo

@eisabai

How to build a culture of innovation within a tech company

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Times are changing, nowadays, the most talented employees no longer feel satisfied to just come into work, do the hours and leave. They want to feel inspired, they want to feel challenged and they want to feel empowered. Therefore, it is important to create a culture of innovation where employees are encouraged, supported and rewarded to come up with ideas that will move things forward. For startups and technology companies, this is even more important to meet changing needs and demands of customers while making the best use of the evolving technologies.

Tech giants like Google realised this, and has long encouraged its employees to devote 20 percent of their time (ie: one full day per week) to work on passion projects.

After working in the technology sector throughout my career, I have learned a few things about how to “innovate or die”. I have organised and participated in many innovation activities. I have also witnessed some companies that went through challenging times as they failed to innovate and retained their tech talent.

So without any further ado, I’d like to share some of the best practices that I have learned in creating an innovation program within a company — that result in a culture of innovation.

  1. Have a regular cadence
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As mentioned earlier, the concept of having a dedicated time for innovation is not new. Many technology companies have a dedicated time for innovation, the most popular example being Google’s 20% time. This 20% time by Google has enabled a lot of innovative ideas to be born, for example, Gmail and Adsense were created from innovation time.

Many talented employees usually have great ideas that never see the light of the day because they are always too busy finishing whatever projects that they are working on, so unless companies set some time aside for ideas to bubble up and get validated, they will never find out about these ideas. But what’s the loss for the company, I hear you ask. Well, the loss is the opportunity cost, which is indeed hard to measure short term, but one can only find out after another company or another start up does something that disrupts their business.

However, I understand it might be unrealistic for smaller companies to allow one day a week for innovation. In this case, a company-wide hackathon with a cadence of a quarter or half a year might work better. The important thing for organisations is to have something in place to start with and then improve and amend as required instead of not having anything at all.

2. Have a goal and a theme

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In order for innovation to be really beneficial for both employees and organisations, there needs to be a clear guideline. For example, it can tie in with the organisation’s mission, in alignment with the organisation’s strategy. A guideline doesn’t have to be complicated and definitely not too restrictive. It can be as simple as increase in revenue or increase in user adoption rate. In my experience, I have found that when the goal is easily relatable for most employees, for example, increase customer satisfaction score, instead of something financial, like monthly revenue, better ideas are surfaced. There should also be a committee that plans, organises and communicates the goal and theme. Having an innovation time without a proper structure or a guideline often result in wasted resource.

3. Make it voluntary

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While having an innovation program is great, the truth is that it is not for every employee. Some employees are simply not interested in coming up with ideas. Some employees thrive better when they are told exactly what to do. Some employees may just be busy at that moment in time and don’t have the creative head space. While the idealist in me would want 100% of engagement, I have learned to accept and work with the reality. Therefore, the rule of thumb is innovation time should not demand mandatory participation from every employee even though it is available to every employee.

4. Have a governing committee or sponsors

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Like mentioned earlier, in order for the innovation program to run as smoothly and effectively, there needs to be a committee to make it happen. Innovation committee is a group of people who not only plan ahead and facilitate but also can help with ideas, answer questions, give feedback or just being supportive generally. When you are looking to form an innovation committee, remember these golden rules. People from an innovation committee should be innovators themselves and understand the value of giving freedom and autonomy to employees while ensuring alignment. They inspire other employees to put in a little bit more effort, be more productive and think big.

5. Have a process

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Now you have a regular cadence, a goal and a theme, a good participation rate and a committee that is passionate about innovation. What else could you possibly need? Just one thing — a good process. It is important to have a process and a clear path for those with great ideas. For one company, a good process might be where ideas are documented at the beginning before implementation begins to help with thought process. For another company, a process might include an avenue for idea validation, for example, 1–2 days to create a rough prototype and showcase it to innovation sponsors. The innovation sponsors will be able to recognise any good idea and take the lead in investing more time and resources for the idea. Once ideas are chosen, other employees within the company can contribute to it. This process usually work for medium to large companies where there are employees with different specialised expertise, such as product manager, designer, UX, front-end, back-end, QA, etc. The process then allows all of these people to volunteer and help out in validated ideas. Employees can also expand their skillsets by having a chance to contribute to something that they don’t normally do as part of their day job, for example, a developer acting as a UX designer. There is really no right or wrong process when it comes to creating an innovation program within a company. The one thing that matters the most is that the process allows for continuous improvement.

As you can probably tell, creating a culture of innovation is not easy as it requires effort from all parties involved; from founders, executives, leaders, managers all the way to individual contributors. However, it is extremely important in this day and age as it helps attract and retain top talents, builds a great culture and stays ahead of the competition.

Does your company have an innovation program? If not, time to start thinking about one or champion for one.

As John F. Kennedy said, we do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon, we choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.” 
- John F. Kennedy, 12th of September, 1962

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