Regardless of industry, subject matter or function, the ability to adapt to new opportunities and constraints is critical for long-term success. And while communicators may not be responsible for driving innovation, helping to foster a culture that supports innovation through strategic counsel, message development and tactical planning is squarely within our scope.
The FrazierHeiby team recently hosted Vertiv Chief Innovation Officer Gregory Ratcliff as part of our Curious Minds series. And we’re sharing five key takeaways from our conversation to help communicators foster an innovative culture within their organizations.
Regardless of whether the impact is intentional or positive, leaders have a significant influence on an organization's culture. Any company-wide expectation must be articulated and demonstrated from the top with visible, authentic support — not just lip service.
Many cultural change efforts have been torpedoed by senior leaders who didn’t buy-in. At best, the resistance remains isolated to those leaders’ areas of responsibility and creates hotspots of misalignment. At worst, it spreads throughout the entire organization and does major damage to corporate credibility. If leaders aren’t on the same page, you won’t pass “Go.”
Radical change is easier on a small scale. The larger an organization, the more complex it is to change. Reorienting 25 employees at a start-up is far simpler than turning 25,000 minds and bodies within an established corporation. If you find yourself trying to course-correct a large ship, identify the early adopters who are most likely to engage.
Not everyone is cut out to drive innovation. Knowing how to spot your change makers and bring them into the fold at the outset can morph them into ambassadors for the behavior or mindset you want to see.
Think about the data you have and find ways to use it. At Vertiv, that may mean connecting with anyone who has submitted a patent — indicating a propensity for innovation. But for those of us not in the tech space, it can be as simple as identifying your visionaries vs. activators through personality assessments or asking managers to flag employees who regularly bring new ideas to the table.
Communicators help leaders set the context. And we can also advocate for employees, ensuring that they indeed will have “amnesty,” according to Greg, to experiment (and fail). Permission and amnesty work together and are necessary for innovation to occur.
When working with leaders to articulate culture changes, don’t be afraid to ask process questions. Vertiv has a highly structured process for identifying, exploring and activating innovative ideas. It includes key milestones that force evaluation and critical questioning of whether an idea is ripe to move forward. As noted by Greg, “Not all ideas are created equal; the type of idea drives the type of development and process required to mature the idea.”
In marketing and communications, innovation also follows a structured process for reaching big goals. And it involves idea generation and testing in micro-bursts at each stage of developing our work. A big part of this includes disseminating ideas up, down and across the organization, so they cross-pollinate and bring about more awareness, understanding and behavioral change. Communicators aren’t just the voice of leaders to employees — we’re also the voice of employees to leaders.
People want to be heard, understood and appreciated. Almost by definition, every idea will not be a slam dunk, but they should still be acknowledged and celebrated.
Depending on your internal process, positive reinforcement can take many forms. It can happen in a Slack channel; it can be a kind, congratulatory and appreciative message for managers to share one-on-one; or an automated email that’s sent to any employee who submits a new idea.
“We accept ideas from anyone and let our staff know we hear them,’ said Greg when describing Vertiv’s process. The company has created a brilliant tool (that FrazierHeiby leaders have since put into practice) that captures not-right-now ideas in what they’ve dubbed the “Icebox.” Thoughts and suggestions that may not generate ROI today can be kept on ice for future consideration. Employees know they’re being heard and there’s a record that can be reviewed periodically as contexts change.
Every organization needs a shared vision, clearly and compellingly communicated, that orients each employee toward your north star. Connecting the dots between the vision and the needs of your customers enables team members to create forward-looking solutions. Vertiv’s innovation process is driven by, and nurtures, a true culture of innovation.
“We give high priority to collaborative, cross-group projects,” Greg said.
Innovation can come from all levels — regardless of where someone sits in the company. And communication can help reach people where they are and inspire them to explore new solutions to old problems and offerings that anticipate future market demands.