How Big Companies Can Build a Culture of Innovation

October 16, 2015 • Blog Post • By Quartz Creative


  • Gathering a team of "all stars" doesn't necessarily mean the team will work together fruitfully
  • To motivate teams toward a shared goal, many companies have implemented professional sponsor or mentorship programs

To get sustainable innovation, give your employees a sense of purpose


As companies make the transition to digital business, they find themselves pressed for time and good ideas. In their haste to innovate, many businesses get burned by the myth of the all-star team - that a collection of brilliant individuals will generate brilliant solutions.


Unfortunately, the sum total of your best recruits isnt always a fruitful team. To get sustainable innovation, a group of workers needs a purpose, says Debra France, Ed.D., who studies leadership development at W.L. Gore, the materials science and manufacturing company famous for its flat, no-management organization design.


"When you put a group of innovative people in a room, they havent necessarily found the reason to create something together", says France, highlighting the necessity of outlining a project that excites all stakeholders with its potential impact. Each employee must see an opportunity to make something bigger with the group than would be possible when working alone.


If the group starts out united around a purpose but slowly disintegrates, its often because expectations arent lining up. "Even the most capable people may have a lot of baggage when they come into a new organization", says France. Setting big, ambitious goals is one way to clear cynicism and motivate a stagnant team. Ask what they would rather be working on. Make sure theyre imagining projects that are ambitious enough to be exciting. "You want to end up with something thats worth the journey at the end", says France.


The most important ingredient to an innovative culture is a sponsor system, according to France, who wrote her doctoral dissertation on the practice. "Every one of the ten thousand people at Gore has a sponsor, says France, even the CEO".



Sponsors typically work in a similar job function or practice in a similar field. That relevant expertise helps them anticipate questions and understand the resources needed to succeed. France describes sponsors as "smart, committed buddies" that stick around anywhere from six to 18 months, which is usually long enough to help get a great project off the ground.


"It's an organic way of growing people, and while its enterprise-wide, its also extremely personal", says France. "I get to choose someone with the right amount of challenge and the right amount of support, somebody who will give me the right mixture of visibility and air cover."


For each employee, all these conditions combine into a setting that France calls a "micro-environment". She considers these personal climate bubbles to be core to innovation at a larger scale. Like any job, "you have to show that youre producing something", says France. "But the sponsor keeps everybody's eyes away until your best ideas are taking shape".


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