Building a ‘Get Ahead to Stay Ahead’ Culture

I was surprised when the cup of coffee I bought the other morning was handed to me in a styrofoam cup. A few months back, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg introduced legislation that would ban all styrofoam containers from the city’s restaurants. The measure still sits in debate, hence my Saturday morning cup of joe’s ability to stay steaming hot on my subway ride up Manhattan’s west side. Mid-train ride I got to thinking about the styrofoam lobby (yes, that exists) and their fight against the ban, which is understandable considering that the country’s most populous city could initiate a domino effect of anti-styrofoam campaigns. Could there be another way? Where is innovation happening?

I’m no scientist, but I have to believe that with the right brains in the right rooms, those styrofoam guys could come up with a new type of packaging that is better for the environment yet still keeps things toasty inside. So why haven’t they?

The most successful companies are the ones who don’t wait until their star starts to set before they begin to think about new ways of doing business. Still, too many wait to innovate until they’re in a crisis situation, and crawling out of that hole is difficult if not impossible.

But what is less obvious about these successful, cutting-edge companies is that all that creativity doesn’t just live in the R&D department, but throughout the organization. The right organizational culture makes it possible for innovation to occur.

As my colleague Ashley recently wrote, innovation requires promotion of risk-taking and acceptance of failure throughout your company. Research also shows that people are more creative when they have a supportive work community, autonomy, projects they perceive as challenging, time and space to focus on those challenges, a mindset friendly to ambiguity and enough wiggle room to try something new – whether that’s creating a new breakthrough product or simply revamping the way the department organizes documents.

gC worked with a client to design a leadership summit last month for one of most important revenue-driving divisions within a global powerhouse company – a division of nearly 1000 people. At the summit, the division leader proudly told the story of a junior employee who had an idea for improving a crucial process. She took the idea to her manager, who elevated it quickly to the top. Her idea is now changing the way the division does business, increasing efficiency and productivity. Imagine if their company’s culture wasn’t flexible enough to incorporate new ideas or even allow space for them to percolate, empowering of its junior (and senior) employees, or willing to try a new way of working while knowing full well it might fail?

As a leader, being open to the ambiguity required for your organization’s culture to stay innovative isn’t easy. But then think, when’s the last time you drank out of styrofoam cup?