How to Enable Innovation to Thrive

Creating an organization where innovation is thriving is no small undertaking. Most organizations run the day-to-day core business focused on operational excellence, customer service, meeting the operational metrics, etc. But what if your core business, shifting consumer demand or market forces require you to take a giant leap instead of steps forward? So many companies find themselves in exactly this space today – where competitive pressures, rapidly changing market forces and bottom-line financial pressure are requiring those giant leaps.

We intuitively know that innovation enables those giant leaps forward, yet embedding innovation in your business practices and corporate culture can be a huge challenge. So what does it take to build an organization and a culture that enables innovation to thrive? Based on research (from Forbes, Loonshots by Safi Bahcall, and McKinsey studies), as well as my experience working directly to solve these issues with clients, here are some ideas that top the list based on what I’ve seen work in practice:

  • Structured, but flexible goal setting – with enough “stretch” to push the boundaries of what can be achieved, but flexibility to deliver and discover along the way. McKinsey in particular calls this “innovation parenting”, the idea that you start by grounding your innovators in accountability for the organization’s objectives, key focus areas, core capabilities, and commitments to stakeholders, then give them discretion and wide latitude to go make it happen.
  • Facilitating creativity – creating opportunities to move away from “business-as-science” model (Barry & Meisiek, 2014) that involves formal process and analysis rather than hands-on problem solving. One of the best approaches I’ve seen in practices is Design Thinking, especially when it comes to driving transformational change.
  • Removing red tape, bureaucracy and hierarchy – making sure that barriers and roadblocks are effectively neutralized as obstacles. This is easily said, but difficult to do in practice – especially if your people management processes and practices are out of alignment.
  • Finding and encouraging your innovators. Research from Darcy Partners calls these innovators “Scouts” and research supports the idea that scouts are an integral part of your innovation strategy.
  • Rewarding your innovators – identify the skills, competencies and behaviors associated with innovation. Then – build them into your people processes & practices.

Sheri Browning is a Partner at PeopleResults. You can reach her at or on Twitter @sbPResults