The Innovation Formula: Why colourful beanbags don’t cut it

Creating a culture of innovation is the quickest way to company growth and happy employees, so the resounding question isn’t if we should innovate but how. We ask the author of best-selling book The Innovation Formula for some answers.

A culture of innovation in the workplace – show me a CEO or even a worker who doesn’t find the sound of that enticing. In fact, according to Dr Amantha Imber, author of The Innovation Formula and founder of innovation consultancy company Inventium, while the question a decade ago was “should we be innovating?”, companies are now asking “how do we innovate?”. “It’s a given we need to be doing this, so the question now is how,” she says. And some of her answers may surprise you.

But first, what does a culture of innovation look like? “Culture is about the vibe of a place so it’s looking at ‘how can you create the right vibe that encourages innovative behaviours?’. For me, innovation itself is change that adds value and anyone’s capable of making change, so it’s a very inclusive definition. The value innovation adds can be financial or otherwise. There’s no point having change for change’s sake – it’s important it adds value.”

According to Dr Imber, the question of how to innovate is something a lot of people have an opinion on, but research suggests that a lot of those opinions are wrong. “Many leaders who have been given the directive to ‘build a culture of innovation’ immediately think about the funky spaces of the world’s largest, hippest companies and believe this will do the trick. “Images of multicoloured beanbags and table tennis tables fill their minds,” she laughs. These might be fun, but according to Dr Imber in terms of innovation they are ineffective and tokenistic. “There needs to be more depth and rigour behind approaches to make them effective.”

Dr Imber has found such depth and rigour through analysing and drawing on academic research on innovation and creativity. “There was all this great research and I didn’t really feel it was being applied to companies in the real world,” she says. Being asked weekly by clients at Inventium how to create a culture where innovation thrives, she felt it was time to funnel her research into a book and encourage businesses down a path that not only impacts the bottom line, but also increases employee engagement.

“We’ve done a lot of work with Coca-Cola Amatil and in their Perth office they had low engagement scores of about 30 per cent. After they introduced their innovate program, within a year or two engagement scores had shot up to 70 per cent. So encouraging a culture of innovation has the side benefits of engagement and happier employees,” says Dr Imber, who found her calling when she encountered organisational psychology in her second year of university and understood it could be used to help people to find happiness in their workplace.

We asked Dr Imber to summarise three of the most impacting variables explored in the 14 chapters of her book.

  • Encourage risk taking: It’s really important that companies have a culture that is comfortable with risk taking, and most importantly is comfortable with failure. Failure is an inevitable part of the innovation journey and it’s really important that we see it as something we can learn from rather than as this really bad thing that we need to avoid at all costs.
  • Make sure people feel challenged: We don’t want people coming to work and feeling like they could do their job with their eyes closed. On the other hand, we don’t want people coming to work and feeling really stressed. You want that sweet spot where people feel a decent level of challenge and feel they’ve got the skills and resources to rise to meet that challenge.
  • Create a diverse workplace: Ensure that within teams in the organisation different points of view are encouraged. You want people to feel really comfortable to debate different ideas with each other, and even when you’re recruiting new team members you’re recruiting people who have different points of view and a different take on life.

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