Want to drive an innovation culture change within your organization but don't know where to start?

You don’t need to rely on lone geniuses or bet the house on breakthrough ideas. In the right circumstances, normal people and normal organizations can do extraordinary things. And it all comes down to the culture. Organizations must foster one where the behaviors that drive innovation success are habits, as explained in the book “Eat, Sleep, Innovate”, co-authored by Scott D. Anthony, Andy Parker, and Natalie Painchaud.

Of course, intentionally creating a culture of innovation is not an overnight transformation. It takes practice, investment, and time.

Hologic and General Mills are two major companies in two different industries. They started to use the approach as codified in “Eat, Sleep, Innovate” to unleash the potential of their people and cultures to ultimately achieve strategic and organizational goals.

At our recent Innov8rs Connect on Culture, Talent & Teams, Jessica Schenck, Director of Surgical Research and Development at Hologic, and Justin Kaster, Growth Strategist and Business Designer at General Mills, talked with Natalie Painchaud to compare experiences and share lessons learned.

Here's the recording of their session, with a summary below.

As recorded during Innov8rs Connect on Culture, Talent & Teams in March 2022. For access to 700+ other videos and resources, become a member of Innov8rs Community - apply to join here

Bringing Innovation Culture To The Rest Of The Organization At Hologic

A few years ago, in order to move into adjacent spaces and find transformational solutions, Hologic leaders created an innovation team by bringing together marketers and engineers.

The team adopted several innovation behaviors (which we’ll come back to shortly) and built a very different-looking sub-portfolio of new products. But when the moment came to bring that sub-portfolio to life and the team got pulled back into the new product development unit, the reality hit hard.

The innovation team was no longer used to operating as before. And, even worse, Hologic was not placing value on what the innovation team was creating- in Jessica words: “I realized that even if that innovation team was set out to create innovation for our customers, what we were doing by bringing those projects in-house was creating organizational capabilities that weren’t considered innovation for Hologic”.

The question naturally arises: how to bring that same innovation culture you might have within an innovation team to the rest of the organization?

The first step is to acknowledge that innovation affects the entire organization. Leaders should promote the adoption of the following five behaviors to make an innovation culture work (and reduce the friction between the whole organization and the innovation team):

  • Curiosity: Question the status quo and consistently search for different and better ways to do things.
  • Customer-Obsession: Relentlessly seek to develop an ever-deeper understanding of the jobs to be done of customers, employees, and stakeholders.
  • Collaboration: Incorporate cross-functional expertise resourcefully, recognizing that the smartest person in the room is often the room itself.
  • Adeptness in Ambiguity: Act confidently, despite incomplete information, expect iteration and change, excel at experimentation, and celebrate judicious risk-taking.
  • Empowerment: Exercise initiative, seek out and leverage resources, and make confident decisions.

To explore and see how other companies have put these behaviors into practice over time, refer to the book "Eat, Sleep, Innovate" and the resources the authors provide.

A Common Language At General Mills

Relentlessly Innovating is a fundamental pillar of General Mills’ Accelerate Strategy, defining the path for the next chapter of General Mills' growth, leveraging the company's historical strengths and deploying them in ways that are relevant for today's consumers and marketplace. This strategy guides the company’s choices on how to win and where to play to drive profitable growth and top-tier shareholder returns over the long term.

Relentlessly Innovating means creating new solutions to real consumer problems, leveraging greater speed to market on core platform innovation and finding new areas of growth through experimentation and in-market learning to ultimately become the most innovative food company in the world.

But how does General Mills manage all of this without too much trouble?

Justin states that orienting organizational culture towards innovation is the primary building block that enables the Accelerate Strategy to come to fruition. To this end, General Mills makes innovation an everyday habit across the organization by essentially creating a common language through activities that foster employees’ curiosity, customer obsession, and empowerment.

Book clubs, culture sprints (interactive programs focused on leading founders, executives, and their teams through the methods and foundational elements that drive higher levels of success within organizations), and innovation summits (programs aimed at helping people think differently about innovation) are the main activities the company promotes. Combining these activities with daily work also teaches employees to collaborate and adapt in ambiguity.

These practices can be easily replicated in all companies. As Natalie suggests-

"Start by borrowing from others. Your behaviors don't have to be original; they just have to work.”

The Role Of Leadership

For sure, driving culture change is a process that takes much investment on the leadership side, in order to create the right conditions and enablers.

“Creating a big change in the culture takes a long time. You can literally see it happening day after day”, Jessica says.

Leaders must create a strong connection between strategy and culture of innovation by encouraging conversations about what innovation means for the company first and foremost.

But leaders should also be flexible and create a psychologically safe environment where people can be curious and ask questions to deeply investigate customer needs. Giving flexibility means having the opportunity to listen to customers better and even realize that the course of things was not correct. And hence adapt and adjust the direction.

“Even if we have to change course, it's a success because we realize we were not listening to the customer originally”, concludes Jessica.

Jessica also warns about respecting people's natural tendencies. Forcing them to be comfortable with all the changes related to innovation culture might often be counterproductive, at least initially. She suggests focusing on the people who already show desired behaviors inherently and bringing the rest along- this will avoid much friction.

Finally, another effective tool is to take the time to pause and think about all the possible reasons why what you’re working on could be a spectacular failure, and what this would look like. Once your team has done this “pre-mortem” for your initiative, think about how you can mitigate these identified risks and what you want to test early on.

“Sometimes we want to be really positive and only see the good, but it is important to have an explicit conversation around the things that can go wrong”, suggests Natalie.