You can have the best innovation strategy in the world, but you won't get far without a supportive culture across the organization and the right talent within your innovation teams.

When it comes to creating or changing a culture of innovation, what works? What's needed to build high-performing innovation teams?

During our recent The Innovator’s Handbook 2023 launch event, Apoorva Shah (Vice President of Innovation at Wiley) and Cassandra Galloway (Head of Strategic Workforce Transformation at Zurich Insurance) dove into the crucial topic of innovation culture, as summarized below.

How To Nurture An Innovation Culture?

In Cassandra and Apoorva's opinion, fostering and maintaining a culture of innovation begins with balancing workloads and strategically prioritizing what makes the most business sense.

Today is just too easy for people to add more to their plates while it's much harder to stop doing things. This creates a culture where overworking is glorified and seen as the only way to succeed. Yet there's no truth to that. “We all need breathing space,” – claims Apoorva – “especially if we want to be creative. Everyone needs to learn to say 'no' and make tradeoffs at a company, team, and individual level”.

“What you don't do is just as important as what you do”.

It's up to managers and employees alike to keep an eye on this balance and speak up. In turn, this will lead to a strong culture of innovation throughout the entire organization.

Why (And How To) Democratize Innovation?

We could remain relevant and get to market by innovating in silos. It is Cassandra's belief, however, that nothing compares to the results companies can achieve when they empower their employees and democratize innovation.

“There are two things that people don't like in life. One is change and the other is things staying the same”.

Apoorva argues that democratizing innovation starts with democratizing the context. Sadly, many employees lack context and don’t understand the underlying strategy, values, business models, or key factors that impact the business. As a result, democratizing innovation is unfeasible. It’s up to leaders to communicate and share the context with their people.

Furthermore, a culture of innovation requires a proper framework for decision-making. As often occurs, the most competent people to solve problems and change the organization are not those who come up with new ideas. It follows that decisions should be made by who is closest to the issue to solve. “There’s more to innovation than just developing a new technology or a brand new business model. Innovation is also about serving customers better and meeting their needs more effectively”, says Apoorva.

“The most innovative organizations let those closest to the problem solve it. It's the small incremental changes that can make a world of difference”.

Some may still feel that they aren't creative enough to be innovators. A business leader's role here is to cultivate an intrapreneurial mindset in every employee and tap into their knowledge, experience, and ideas, no matter how immature (from an innovation standpoint) they are.

Zurich Insurance brings together its employees from around the world to work on common problems in an effort to foster diversity of thoughts, perspectives, and experiences. During these sessions, they are coached and given the tools to build their innovation muscle. “Whenever we reach the sweet spot and find that a particular collective idea has some traction, we pitch it to our executive committee”, explains Cassandra.

How To Find The Best Talent For Innovation?

Talent is at the core of a culture of innovation, and diversity of thought is paramount for it to thrive. How to identify the top talent you need for your innovation journey? Apoorva and Cassandra discuss how to balance external and internal hiring.

At Wiley, which employs 5000 people, they're constantly looking for people who can offer more than just expertise. As Apoorva explains, Wiley seeks creative talent with a problem-solving mindset and empathetic attitude who can provide diverse perspectives and help create an environment that promotes innovation. People’s specific industry backgrounds often take a back seat.

“When you have people aboard with strong empathetic muscles and a creative approach to problem-solving, it doesn't matter whether they have an innovation background or not. It is always possible to learn more about the industry. The real challenge is developing those muscles”.

Many informal and formal approaches can be then taken to foster the internal innovation muscle and desire. For example, the program “Wiley Hacks” isn't designed for employees to share new ideas but to share how they work and interact with customers. Over 200 different stories and experiences have been collected so far. “This is really a great way to source talent and identify people who might be able to help with similar tasks and bring their perspectives to other projects”, says Apoorva.

Wiley also runs a fellowship program that allows emerging career professionals with an appetite for innovation to work on projects outside their current fields. However, you may need talent outside your company at times.

“Using the talent within is important, but don't always think that you already have all the innovation capabilities you need”.

Upskilling and rebuilding the skills of its over 55,000 employees across the world is a priority at Zurich Insurance. Yet they’re aware they've got some limitations. Hence, they’ve created the Innovation Championship program to collaborate and develop compelling products and services with startups and entrepreneurs. What makes a big corporate seek out partnerships with external innovators? In Cassandra's words, “startups are agile, resourceful, and excellent problem solvers. Having them as partners gives us many ground-breaking ideas and food for thought that we might not be open to internally”.