Company Culture

How To Drive Innovation At Work: 10 Ways To Make Creativity A Cultural Norm

Rebecca Noori

Pop quiz: What do 3M's Post-It Note, Nintendo's Game Boy, and Kellogg's Corn Flakes all have in common? Answer: They're all the result of innovative employees willing to experiment and drive creativity at work. 

The Post-It Note was conceived after 3M engineers were tasked with developing a super-strong adhesive for building planes; instead, they created a weak adhesive that peeled away without leaving any residue. The Game Boy was the result of Nintendo's president agreeing to the R&D team's request to build a handheld device for interchangeable games. And Corn Flakes were a happy accident caused by leaving rolled wheat dough out overnight, producing the flakes we all know and love. 

While the origins of these groundbreaking products vary, they all share a common thread that our guide digs into: the relentless pursuit of creative thinking and a commitment to driving innovation at work.

Table of Contents

What Does Innovation Look Like In The Workplace? 

Innovation in the workplace is about anticipating future challenges or opportunities your organization may have. From here, you'll develop innovative products, processes, or ideas to prepare and position your business for success. 

Speaking on "This HR Life" podcast, Ron Storn, Chief People and Business Operations Officer at Booster, defines innovation as "assuming that there's a better way of doing things, not keeping the status quo, and always focusing on customer needs." But what does this look like in action? 

President and CEO Normand Chevrette described how an innovative employee boosted company performance at CME Corp. by developing a remote monitoring system that spotted equipment issues in real-time. He shared how this innovation resulted in less downtime: 

“With the remote monitoring system in action, we could keep tabs on our equipment from one central spot. It collected data and alerted us right away if something seemed off. Rather than waiting for a breakdown to occur and rushing to fix it, we could immediately address the main problem. We had way fewer disruptions and delays, and we were able to meet our targets like clockwork.”

Along with this real-world example, there are numerous other ways that innovation can transform your core business, including: 

  • Product development: Creating solutions that meet evolving customer needs or pain points and address emerging market trends.
  • Customer experience: Delivering exceptional customer service via a seamless, personalized experience.
  • Data and analytics: Leaning on data to gain valuable insights, make data-driven decisions, and identify opportunities for improvement.
  • Supply chain management: Implementing new approaches to manage the supply chain more ethically and effectively, ensuring timely delivery and reduced inventory costs.
  • Business collaborations: Forging strategic partnerships with other innovative companies to access new markets or combine expertise.
  • Sustainability: Designing new products or processes solidifying your commitment to a more environmentally responsible future. 
  • Digital innovation: Leveraging or creating the latest technologies to improve efficiency and set your business up for success. 

What does innovation look like in the workplace?

What Does The Innovation Mindset Look Like? 

Innovation isn't confined to entrepreneurs and leaders; every employee at every organizational level can participate. But it requires adopting a certain innovation mindset, encompassing a set of attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that seek continuous improvement within your organization. In action, this innovation mindset is a willingness to: 

  • Explore new ideas
  • Take calculated risks
  • Embrace failure as a stepping stone to success 
  • Prioritize long-term results over short-term wins 
  • Overcome rigid hierarchies 

The "growth mindset" is an important part of workplace innovation, popularized by psychologist Carol S. Dweck, who believed individuals can develop their skills and capabilities through dedication and hard work.

This perspective contrasts with a "fixed mindset," where individuals accept their qualities are innate and unchangeable. Employees who adopt a growth mindset are more likely to see challenges as opportunities to learn and grow, leading to increased innovative thinking and adaptability for employees and organizations alike.

What Are The Benefits Of Fostering Innovation At Work? 

Innovation is a strategic imperative for companies who want to stay ahead of the curve. When your core business adopts an innovative approach, you can:

1. Gain A Competitive Advantage 

Companies that want to be relevant in one, three, or five years must obsessively chase innovation and pursue differentiation. Developing unique products, services, or processes and fostering a culture of innovation will return a greater market share and increased customer loyalty.

2. Improve Products And Services For Customers 

Before COVID-19, only 19% of US employees and 25% of European workers strongly agreed they involved customers in improving their products and services. But Gallup research highlights one of the few benefits to emerge from the pandemic: businesses have become more creative in the face of disruption. Companies that collected customer feedback, gained granular insights, and developed ideas accordingly have been rewarded with greater customer satisfaction and retention.

3. Increase Output 

Innovative ideas often lead to more efficient workflows and processes. By encouraging employees to think creatively and find better ways of doing things, organizations can streamline operations, eliminate redundancies, and improve overall productivity. 

For example, Carly Hill, Operations Manager at Virtual Holiday Party, describes a standout employee who took the initiative to automate many administrative tasks, from sending staff post-event feedback forms to connecting Slack channels to payment platforms to simplify reporting actions. Carly shared the results:

“These steps cut down on manual administrative labor and freed staff to work on higher-level tasks, which in a small company with a limited headcount is absolutely essential. Sam’s approach to work also inspired other employees to find more tool-centric, effective ways of performing basic tasks.”

4. Boost Employee Engagement  

Employees feel more engaged and valued when encouraged to contribute ideas and participate in innovation. This is cyclical, as a Chinese study on working millennials found that highly engaged employees are also more likely to display innovative work behaviors.

Innovation at work boosts employee engagement

10 Ways To Encourage Innovation At Work 

Every company would like to harness workplace innovation, but finding time to be forward-thinking while dealing with short-term goals is an ongoing challenge. Employees may not feel they have “permission” to think outside the box, while company leaders may struggle to prioritize innovation ahead of more pressing objectives.

Here are ten ways to set clear expectations for innovation and ensure your company culture is set up for creative success:

1. Cultivate An Innovative Mindset 

Being innovative may come naturally to some, while others struggle to get into their creative zone. But Innovation Expert Nils Vesk stresses that innovation is for everyone and can be incorporated throughout every area of a business: 

"The reason people shy away from innovation is that most people don't know how to do it. Innovation is not just for inventing a new product or app. Innovation can fix your processes. It can fix your problem-solving. Innovation can get you better cost savings. Innovation can increase your sales and service."

Speaking on the HR in Review podcast, Executive Innovation Coach and best-selling author Elvin Turner advises teaching your people the basics of the flow of innovation. The steps involved in this process are: 

  1. Learning how to identify a great insight, such as pinpointing data that presents an opportunity. 
  2. Learning how to turn insights into differentiated questions, for example, by developing and presenting your idea to spark further discussion and exploration. 
  3. Testing your ideas. Acknowledging that the business can’t invest in everything, so conducting experiments to decide which ideas to back with resources. 
  4. Scaling innovation and integrating it with your business processes, product line, or other critical area.

2. Carve Time And Space For Innovation  

In an ideal world, your company will offer a culture of innovation—practiced daily by every team member at every level of your organization, which looks like this:

  • Putting innovation in your monthly and quarterly plans 
  • Using weekly meetings to check who is working on which task and the outcomes 
  • Including innovation in regular feedback discussions and performance reviews 

For innovation to be a cultural norm, it's essential to be deliberate about creating an environment where everyone feels free to innovate without worrying about it being inconvenient or slowing down daily workflows.

Elvin Turner explains how to do this intentionally and create space for innovation to show up: 

“There's nothing mysterious about how you set up innovation. It's no different to how you set up finance, marketing, logistics, or any other function that has to show up and perform well to deliver value. 
The key is about being deliberate, and usually, we're not. We're laissez-faire about innovation, and then we're surprised when people say, "I don't have time. We don't have the capabilities; we don't have the resources.” It sounds like excuses, when it's the cold reality of trying to do new things in the context of the status quo, which is set up not to embrace new things."

To make innovation work, companies must carve time and space for it.

3. Embrace Creativity 

Creativity comes in many forms, from planning a new process to developing a product or service for customers. What's important is that you provide room for these ideas to grow. To make sure your team feels comfortable expressing their creativity, shape an open communication culture by: 

  • Creating dedicated spaces where employees can share ideas without judgment 
  • Encouraging free-form brainstorming and suggestion box sessions 
  • Establishing processes for idea tracking so good suggestions aren’t lost 

Nils Vesk suggests that providing a fun and playful work environment is also more likely to produce great results, just as it does in early education: 

"Being innovative means thinking about a problem or opportunity differently to get a better result or solution. That means approaching the problem or opportunity from a different perspective and point of view.
This is something we used to be very good at doing. As kids, we were creative. The more creative we are at solving a problem, the more fun we have. The more fun we have, the more creative we become." 

Psychologists Dr. Sam Wang and Dr. Sandra Aamodt also believe fun is synonymous with creativity. In their book, "Welcome to Your Child's Brain: How The Mind Grows from Conception to College," they state, "Work in adult life is often most effective when it resembles play."

4. Encourage Risk-Taking And Failure 

Playing it safe isn't conducive to innovation—it doesn't enable businesses to explore new ideas meaningfully. Instead, innovation requires an open-minded approach to taking risks, even if this inevitably leads to making mistakes. In conversation with Ron Storn and Brett Addis, Digital Transformation Executive, Moss Adams asserts:

"Everyone needs to challenge themselves in the way they work to invite change. I like the experimentation approach, I wish more organizations would have that mindset that failure is okay. As long as we continue to progress, we're going to try and fail a bit along the way. Failure is your next step to achieve something."

Nectar Tip: Check out our article, "Avoid These 12 Common Employee Recognition Mistakes To Drive Team Success," which digs deeper into the role of failure in employee engagement. This article details how pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly regularly holds failure parties to "honor intelligent, high-quality scientific experiments that fail to achieve the desired results."

Create a culture people won't want to leave with Nectar

5. Map Your Goals

Vague goals and objectives can lead to confusion and uncertainty regarding innovation. Staying focused on your overall goals while setting smaller milestones to track progress and evaluate success is vital. Start by mapping the bigger picture of your desired outcome, then create an actionable roadmap for each step you need to take to reach that goal. Ron Storn breaks down why this is essential for successful innovation: 

"If you don't have milestones, people get stuck, and they don't know what they're heading towards—they don't know how to pivot or adjust. It's important to clearly articulate what your idea is, what the key game points are to it, and a timeline so it's basically a project plan. By having these measurements in there, you're not stifling [innovation]; you're trying to move and pivot faster."

6. Depend On Metrics   

As with any other business aspect, data is critical to directing innovation. IDC’s Future of Intelligence reveals that enterprise intelligence performers in the top quartile are:

  • 2.7x more likely to grow high revenue over 2020-2023 
  • 3.6x more likely to accelerate the time to market for new products, services, experiences, and initiatives. 

Your choice of metrics must be customized to your business goals but could include some of the following: 

  • Customer feedback and satisfaction scores: Analyzing customer feedback, surveys, and Net Promoter Score (NPS) to understand customer needs, pain points, and overall satisfaction with products or services.
  • Market trends and competitor analysis: Collecting data on market trends, industry benchmarks, and competitor performance to identify gaps and opportunities for innovation.
  • Employee feedback and idea generation: Gathering employee input through surveys or idea generation platforms to tap into their creativity and uncover innovative ideas.
  • Innovation investment ROI: Measuring the return on investment (ROI) for innovation projects and initiatives to assess their impact on the company's bottom line.
  • Time-to-market and product development: Tracking the time it takes to develop and launch new products or features and the success rate of product launches.

7. Build Relationships In A Collaborative Work Environment 

Innovation shouldn't happen in silos. Depending on the concept or idea you must explore, it often requires buy-in across cross-functional teams. But how does this work? Ron Storn explains how to get multiple parties onboard, using an example of combining ops and engineering teams: 

“There are always going to be some who are pro-innovation, pro-creativity, so if you can get a focus group, bring them together and think about ideas of what we can do as a group or as a company.” 

The focus group can also examine the nuance of how innovation will impact each department.

But looking beyond these formal gatherings, psychologists Chris Gilbert, MD, Ph.D., and Eric Haseltine, Ph.D., reveal the value of informal relationship-building in the workplace. Strong trust bonds between colleagues create a psychologically safe space that motivates people to attempt new behaviors and adopt new ways of thinking. Gilbert and Haseltine believe these loose, informal workplace connections are more important to innovation than elements like creativity and divergent thinking.

8. Lean On Sponsorship 

Sponsorship in innovation refers to finding people champions who will:

  • Back your projects with available resources
  • Achieve buy-in across separate departments
  • Communicate the ideas with the rest of the team

Ron Storn discussed the type of person who makes the best sponsor:

“It has to be someone impactful within the organization, that already has a following in whatever field they’re operating in (ops, engineering, go-to-market)—someone who has shown results, who has developed a team. I think it’s better to have a leader than an IC (individual contributor), to be that sponsor. It’s important that someone has done things, and maybe they haven’t always been successful but they have proven themselves.”

Sponsors can use a framework to drive a high-performing culture of innovation and scale this across cross-functional teams and the entire organization. Ron suggests that sponsors review historic innovation to work on future opportunities by:

  • Looking at projects or goals from the past that didn’t work 
  • Piloting new ideas 
  • Iterating and monitoring the results
  • Scaling innovation when they reach their goals

Lean on sponsorship to make your innovations work. Connect with leaders who have made progress to champion new ideas

9. Provide Leadership Innovation Training 

Although innovation should be a company-wide initiative, leadership plays a vital role in fuelling creativity and ensuring it remains top of mind across your teams. But few business leaders receive specific training that enables them to understand their leadership's impact on innovation. Elvin Turner explains the gems that company leaders need to know, including how to fit innovation among ongoing decision-making:

“By virtue of their position, they're expected to know this by osmosis—it's a very different skill set to running an effective, efficient status quo organization. The most valuable thing you can do is help them look at it at a team level. Here's the strategy, the priorities that come out of that strategy as a team, what won't happen unless we innovate, what won't happen in these objectives unless we innovate. That’s your agenda now let's turn that into projects and plans.
Even with an innovation plan in place, sooner or later, a fire will land on our desks, which risks pushing innovation off, and then it never comes back. Is this important enough to stop this piece of innovation that's an investment in our future? Does this matter enough vs. the fire on our desk? Our knee-jerk reaction is usually to solve the immediate problem because we like the short-term rewards and metrics that are always louder and more important."

10. Focus On The Future, Today 

Innovation is a broad term, and it can be challenging for business leaders and individual employees to know what they should innovate. The key is to focus on the future of your specific business, which could mean: 

  • Keeping up with industry news to anticipate any market movements 
  • Forecasting business performance and customer demands over the next 1-5 years 
  • Expanding or pivoting into new business areas 
  • Exploring new technologies to create innovative products, services, or processes that haven't been done before 
  • Analyzing data to zone in on customer expectations and needs

Elvin Turner makes a great case for staying focused on the future, regardless of the pressures of today’s work. 

"Every time we're tempted to stop making this a priority, we're choosing to shrink tomorrow, because the ideas that tomorrow needs us to come up with today have suddenly been put on hold."

3 Real-World Examples Of Innovation At Work 

Innovation is in the eye of the beholder—it means different things to different people. Nevertheless, these real-world examples of innovative practices have undoubtedly created phenomenal results for their respective companies, customer bases, and broader society.

1. Ford

Ford powertrain controls engineer Doug Martin was inspired by reading a billboard in Lima, Peru which converted the city's humid air into drinking water for the local community. He recognized that the condensation from a car's air-conditioning units was wasting up to 1.9 liters of surplus fluid per hour and created a solution to turn it into clean, drinking water. Now, Doug Martin's invention, On-The-Go H2O, ensures drivers don't need to buy bottled water on long car journeys, reducing the number of plastic bottles we send to landfills.

2. Amazon 

Amazon is famous for providing the world with innovations, and this passion for invention is built into the company's core values. Amazonians are encouraged to explore all ideas, whether related to their job or not. To progress their innovation efforts, they're encouraged to work backward by committing to the PRFAQ process, which includes:

  • Writing a press release outlining the vision for an innovative product 
  • Creating a list of FAQs describing the benefits to the customers and theoretical customer questions 
  • Sharing the PRFAQ with other Amazon innovators

The best ideas will receive funding for a formal launch to join popular solutions like Amazon's Alexa, Prime, or Kindle.

3. Google 

Google employee Krishna Bharat created Google News after feeling frustrated trying to find relevant news articles during the 9/11 attacks. Bharat noticed that Google's search results felt chaotic, providing a mix of old and new articles, which made it challenging for users to get up-to-date information in real-time. Recognizing the need for a better way to aggregate and organize news from multiple sources, he proposed creating a news portal that would automatically collect and arrange news articles based on their relevance and recency.

Google News was officially launched on September 22, 2002, just a year after 9/11, and the service's algorithmic approach to news aggregation made it stand out from other news portals at the time. It was one of the earliest examples of personalized news curation based on user interests and behavior.

Keep your remote team connected and engaged with Nectar

Spark Innovation In Your Workplace With Nectar 

Innovation doesn't happen automatically or in a vacuum—it must be firmly embedded in your company culture so leaders know how to prioritize it and motivate employees to drive it forward.

Nectar has all the tools you need to empower your workforce and foster groundbreaking ideas. Choose from:

  • Challenges: Motivate your employees to consider and test new ideas by creating a hackathon or a suggestion box challenge. 
  • Recognition: Praise employees who push boundaries and work hard to make innovation happen. 
  • Rewards: Incentivize your workforce by giving employees Nectar points they can redeem for a range of goodies, including company swag, Amazon products, charity donations, a catalog of gift cards, and customizable rewards. 

Schedule a free demo with our team to see Nectar in action. 

Actionable workplace tips & insights for fellow people lovers

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

You might also like...

Promoting Company Core Values: Definition, Importance, and Examples
Company Culture
Promoting Company Core Values: Definition, Importance, and Examples
Do people at your company live the core values? This guide will demonstrate specific ways to promote your values and embed them in the company DNA.
read now >
How to Build Trust in the Workplace (10 Simple Steps)
Company Culture
How to Build Trust in the Workplace (10 Simple Steps)
Learn how to create a culture of trust in your organization in this step-by-step guide. Plus, see answers to the most frequently asked questions.
read now >
What Is Employee Morale? (And How You Boost It)
Company Culture
What Is Employee Morale? (And How You Boost It)
What exactly is employee morale? And how does it impact culture? Learn how to boost morale and create a positive environment.
read now >
.tocitem { display: block; }