Innovation is a lot like obscenity: hard to define, but you know it when you see it. Consider, if you will, the Snuggie™. Yes, that humble staple of late-’90s late-night TV commercials. Obviously, the Snuggie did not represent the first time we humans thought to drape fabric over ourselves to stay warm. Nor was this the world’s first introduction to polar fleece (or sleeves, for that matter). The Snuggie wasn’t so much an invention as it was an iteration. But was it innovative to make a sleeved blanket that you lay across your front instead of wrapping around your back? You bet it was.

Innovation doesn’t always manifest as a massive, mind-blowing, net-new project. It might not even be something your customers can see. Innovation can be as simple as a process improvement that paves the way for customer-facing ideas to get out the door faster.

The defining factor isn’t whether an idea is the first of its kind or whether it’ll have an impact on all of humanity. It’s whether an idea is original and useful within your environment. Is it different from what you’ve done before? Does it solve a problem? Will pursuing it involve some level of risk? If the answers are yes, then you’re innovating.

Failure and invention are inseparable twins. To invent you have to experiment, and if you know in advance that it’s going to work, it’s not an experiment.

– Scott Galloway, NYU Stern School of Business

Innovation can (and should) be everyone’s job

When you expand your definition to include small-scale improvements, like workflow hacks or selling postage stamps via ATMs, you start to realize that anyone in your organization – from the CEO to the intern who started last week – is a potential source of innovation. And that small shift in mindset comes with big implications.

First, because innovative ideas can come from anywhere, you have to be listening everywhere. The moment you establish an “innovation council,” your goose is cooked. Not only is your attention now focused on a handful of blessed individuals, but you’ve also sent the message that the rest of the company is off the hook. They don’t need to bother thinking creatively (and even if they did, they might not feel welcome to voice those thoughts) because, hey: the innovation group has that covered.

In a culture of innovation, listening everywhere means company leaders who have an “open door” policy. It means dedicated time for teams to experiment and chase down whatever wild ideas they’ve been kicking around. It means open, ad-hoc forums where employees can bounce ideas off one another and share what they’ve been working on, even if that forum is a simple Slack channel.

An all-hands-on-deck approach to innovation also requires a working environment where creativity can thrive. People have to feel like they’re free to collaborate across departments and divisions; share work that’s still in progress; ask “dumb” questions; challenge the status quo; take calculated risks; learn from their mistakes without being shamed.

Leaders play a special role

It’s not enough to have these freedoms documented in company policies. They have to be demonstrated, too. As a leader, if people observe you encouraging candid feedback and celebrating cross-departmental teamwork, that sets the tone. Every time you do that, somebody out there who witnesses it will discover the confidence they need to bring a fresh idea forward.

With that in mind, the first section of our guide to building a culture of innovation focuses on the foundational work of creating an open culture. In the second section, we’ll detail tactical ways to operationalize innovation on a small and large scale. Finally, we’ll leave you with helpful templates and thought exercises to share with your teams.

Ready? Let’s do this!

What does innovation really mean?