It’s time to shift your innovation culture

Have you hit a wall in your search for innovation ideas? My guess is you are looking in the wrong place or you are trying to fix a problem that doesn’t really exist.

As capability experts we regularly have conversations with clients who are looking for help to come up with the next big idea. They have ground to a halt in trying to discover that magic never-seen-before product or proposition that will fuel growth long into the future. The blame for this frequently gets laid at the feet of their creative capabilities or their idea generation process. Undoubtedly creativity is important, but if the answer to the challenge our clients face were as simple as improving skills and techniques for idea generation, then working their way through some of the 840 books available on Amazon on this topic should suffice. The reality is that the challenge runs deeper than this. What is really required is a shift in innovation culture.

In Fast Company’s most innovative companies of 2015 (Fast Company, 2015), Warby Parker, Apple and Alibaba top the bill. In digging beneath the surface of what makes these companies so innovative I have not once seen them point towards a new brainstorming technique or creative thinking tool as the answer.

Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba often jokes that he would like to write a book called Alibaba: 1,001 mistakes. He describes a culture that embraces failure, coupled with a determination to simply keep on going regardless. Porter Erisman, former VP at Alibaba, recalls “Jack always telling us: I won’t fault you for making a mistake, but I will fault you for doing nothing. If you took a snapshot at any time, it looks like Alibaba was full of mistakes and problems. But if you took all the snapshots and lined them up together, you can see the trend was always moving forward” (Hong, 2014).

Neil Blumenthal, co-CEO of Warby Parker, defines their secret to innovation as thinking like a beginner. “We encourage employees to approach the world with a beginner’s mindset, it’s a Buddhist concept. This means banishing preconceptions and embracing curiosity. Experts have ready-made solutions; beginners have questions that may ultimately lead to better, newer solutions” (Blumenthal, 2014). He talks about always seeking out a fresh perspective: for example surrounding yourself with non-experts, interviewing first time customers, shopping your own website.

Apple has approached innovation over the years with a clarity of purpose and a boldness of belief that ensures innovation is, in the words of Tim Cook, “in the DNA of the company”.

Here are 4 principles to help you shape your innovation culture:

1. Don’t disrupt yourself

The missive to disrupt yourself is scary and difficult. It’s a big ask of existing teams. Instead set up a different team to challenge and disrupt the existing model, sponsored at the Board level and supported by strong change management.

2. Have courage to stop innovation

Companies with bonuses dependent on revenue from innovation can find that the innovations they deliver are safe and incremental. Breakthrough innovations require full celebration and reward of giving innovation a go and then having the courage to stop a project, admitting failure and sharing the learning.

3. Liberate yourself from perfection

Launch early and let customers refine and shape the solution with you. Even in regulated industries you can share concepts externally before they are perfected. It takes courage, but builds relationships and speeds up the process.

4. Get someone else to innovate for you

Hackathons, corporate partnerships with start-ups like the Unilever Foundry, P&G’s innovation network. You can set the direction and let others develop the solutions. Focus on where in the innovation value chain you can add most value.

These principles sit at the heart of the innovation work we do. In a recent partnership with a global FMCG client, we helped them to explore new ways of thinking and to adopt behaviours that will unlock fresh ideas and commercial results. Using innovative immersive experiences, consumer co-creation and a blend of stimulating and disruptive interventions on live business challenges together we made a real step forward.

Brand Learning: Lifting capabilities to drive customer-centred growth
We work with companies across the world to lift the performance of their teams to drive growth by delivering better value for their customers.

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HONG, K. (2014) This is how much crazy Jack Ma needed to turn Alibaba into a multi-billion dollar giant. [Online] Available from: https://thenextweb.com/asia/2014/07/08/this-is-how-much-crazy-jack-ma-needed-to-turn-alibaba-into-a-multi-billion-dollar-giant/

BLUMENTHAL, N. (2015) The Secret to Innovation at Warby Parker: Think Like a Beginner. [Online] Available from:

FAST COMPANY. (2015) Most Innovative Companies 2015. [Online] Available from: