6 Ways to Build an Innovative Culture
The Praetorian Digital CEO weighs in on how he's fostered creativity at his media company.
Innovation: it’s a necessity for anyone who is looking to grow their business in the rapidly changing world of media today. Judging by the recent ABM and Industry Information Summit I attended, at which innovation was a key theme, I’m not alone in that belief.
Across media, companies are investing in new technologies, launching platforms and experimenting with new business models, as well as creating a wide range of data products, workflow automation tools and native content and marketing services offerings—all in the name of innovation. Innovation creates opportunity in a world where change is the only constant, and it’s a required capability to survive and thrive.
It’s easy to talk about as a concept, but innovation is incredibly difficult to institutionalize within your company or organization. I’ve been drinking the innovation Kool-Aid for years and have worked hard to position my media company, Praetorian Digital, as an innovator within our markets.
But what does it mean to be an innovator? How do you successfully pursue innovation? What tactics do you use? How do you make it part of your company’s DNA?
After a thought-provoking keynote on innovation in media by Don Hawk, executive director and co-founder of TechTarget, I was asked those questions and, candidly, it took me a while to answer.
With the benefit of a long plane flight to better consider my responses, here are six tactics that we’ve used to drive growth through innovation:
1. Build innovation into your company’s DNA
Make innovation a focus by creating a culture that recognizes and rewards continuous improvement. It starts with emphasizing creativity and initiative as a path to success during new employee onboarding. It includes reflecting innovation in your company’s core values. It’s solidified by praising examples of innovation across the company, and by recognizing the effort even in failed attempts.
At our company, we give employees a lot of freedom to experiment with ideas, whether it’s an editor with an idea for a new content feature, a salesperson with a strategy for messaging around a new opportunity or an accountant with a new process to streamline collections. We limit the layers of bureaucracy and approvals, making it easier for employees to conceive of and test pet theories.
The goal is to get your employees focused on improving just one thing every day, no matter how small. Incremental innovation can be very powerful if scaled across a team or company.
2. Drive innovation top-down by setting parameters
A culture of innovation comes from the top. But as a leader, you can’t micromanage innovation. Challenge your team and company to innovate by presenting problems broadly, provide guidance but avoid defining narrow parameters for success.
For example, if product growth is slowing for a key part of your business, present the problem to the team. Offer guidelines for solutions and areas to work on, such as uncovering unmet customer needs or identifying areas to investigate, but don’t prescribe details. As they roll out ideas, make sure your culture allows people to fail fast, change direction and iterate quickly. Finally, celebrate wins.
3. Create ownership for innovation
As a leader or CEO, it’s likely that you have jumped into the fray to drive innovation– particularly as your business has scaled. But as your company grows, innovation becomes much less about you as the driver and more about how you get your team to deliver. This can be particularly challenging when the opportunity is cross functional or sits outside the confines of existing teams or roles, which is often the norm for innovation projects. The key is developing ownership—and accountability.
Here are two tactics we’ve used to develop a plan of attack after identifying an area for innovation:
a. Task a single project owner: I make it a point to deeply understand each person on my team and where they are trying to go with their careers. Where they start within the company may not be where they end up, and sometimes a really good person may not be in the right role or might need a change in focus. Understand their skills, and be open-minded about tasking them with solving a problem or advancing toward an opportunity—whether it falls within the parameters of their role or not.
b. Take a SWAT team approach: Build a SWAT team of a few of your top performers with complementary skillsets and task them with pursuing an opportunity. Give them the guiderails and objectives and let them run with the details and create a solution. Set deliverables and timelines, create visibility for the project across the company to build esteem and accountability, and make sure they stay on target.
For example, we recently identified an opportunity to build advanced behavioral targeting for our media model and a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) platform for rolling it out. To do so, I’ve created a SWAT team from sales, content and technology and will be making it a top company objective for the second part of the year.
4. Make tuck-in acquisitions
Targeted, small acquisitions can be a great way to bring innovation under your roof, bring in skillsets you need or help scale an innovation you’ve launched. For instance, we’ve heavily invested in online learning—a key innovation area for our company—and have made two acquisitions over the past couple of years to scale the opportunity and bring innovative distribution and content models to our efforts.
5. Get out there
One of my mentors in B2B media once commented that it was great to see me come out from under my “bushel basket” when I told him I presented at a conference. I still don’t really know what a bushel basket is, but the meaning of his comment hit its mark and I’ve taken it to heart.
If you want to innovate, you need to get outside of your walls. You need to network, bring experts in as consultants, and not be afraid to hire new blood. Attend conferences like the Folio: Show, join associations like ABM/SIIA and offer up the same opportunities for your team. Buy someone a glass of wine and pick their brain. However you do it, get out there.
6. Have an innovation strategy
Finally, have an innovation strategy that maps to where you are in your company’s growth trajectory. What does innovation mean for your company? Where do you want to innovate?
If you’re smaller (sub $10 million in revenue), innovation is about throwing a lot of sh*t against the wall and seeing what sticks. If you’re scaling from $15 to $100 million and beyond, scope down and use innovation to strategically build upon what you do well in a way that scales fast. Build from your base, innovate but don’t stray too far afield from your core competencies.
If you’re larger, figure out how to stay agile and activate the power of a large organization by harnessing entrepreneurial energy within your company or by acquiring core competencies that align with your strategic direction.
There are many paths to innovation and a lot of philosophies about how to get there, but regardless of your strategy, I’m a firm believer that you can’t just hang around and wait for opportunities to appear. Faced with a rapidly changing media landscape characterized by unprecedented challenges and opportunities, media companies need to be proactive and employ innovation tactics at all levels to navigate change and manufacture growth.