Innovation is a competitive advantage all businesses need these days, but it’s especially important when you’re selling outside of Canada, sparring against other international companies and favoured local contenders alike. In fact, research shows Canadian companies that export are 25 per cent more innovative on average compared to companies that don’t.

The benefits of innovation are pretty straightforward. Having something unique to offer helps you stand out from the competition, increases sales and profits, enhances your corporate brand, and can even increase employee engagement and retention.

Knowing how to make your company more innovative, however, is less clear. Some enterprises try hiring innovative people or training the people they have to be more creative. But a growing number of companies are learning that it’s not so much their people they need to change, but their business environments.

What we can learn from classrooms and start-ups

Dr. Peter Gamwell, currently with the Washington Speakers’ Bureau, has been fascinated by the concept of innovation since he began his career as a music teacher in Newfoundland and Labrador some 40 years ago.

In both the classroom and the business world, Peter noticed a peculiar anomaly. In most situations and organizations, only a fraction of the students or employees were considered innovative, brilliant, or “superstars.” Yet in rare instances, such as certain class projects or business start-ups, every individual involved made remarkable contributions to the work, often bringing forth talents and leadership abilities that had previously remained hidden.

How could an entire group go through such a transformation, so suddenly? 

Peter eventually realized it was not so much the individuals involved, but conditions within the environment that brought out the natural innovative and leadership capabilities of each person. He then set forth on a decades-long quest to find out just what those conditions were, asking thousands of people for their ideas along the way.

3 key ways to make your business environment more innovative

Companies, and their people and situations, are too unique to take a one-size-fits-all approach to creativity. It’s a longer-term goal, and there are likely hundreds of small ways to build your organization’s innovative environment. However, according to Peter, there are three key conditions that, if you can embed them into your business, will form the foundation for innovation. 

1. Recognize there is a seed of brilliance in everyone

Fortunately, the idea that humans only use 10 per cent of their brains is a myth. Most businesses, however, unwittingly structure themselves so they use only a small percentage of their innovative brainpower each day.

Companies don’t start out this way. As young start-ups, they have a mission to quickly become successful or die. With fewer employees, job descriptions are blurred as people fulfill two or three roles, and talents emerge to fill the gaps.

When the first big win is finally achieved, the company’s natural instinct is to repeat the process. More people are hired to fill increasingly specialized roles. A hierarchy is created, with the “best and brightest” at the top, who are expected to guide the growing staff in following the process map as efficiently as possible.

This typically works for a while, even years, and subsequent successes convince the company they’re on the right track. But eventually tastes and trends change in the marketplace, or a competitor comes up with a new innovation, and the trusted path no longer ends in success. Having relied mainly on its top-ranking employees for strategic creativity, the company is now ill-equipped to turn its much larger ship around and develop the innovation it needs.

How to apply this learning to your exporting company:

  • To benefit from the full potential of all your people, recognize that there is a seed of brilliance in every staff member, at every level. Flatten hierarchies and develop more integrated roles that allow people to broaden their interests and knowledge.
  • Require each executive to invite an employee, community member, or other guest to leadership meetings, professional development opportunities, and corporate retreats.
  • By the same token, develop collaborative partnerships with the broader community. Regularly invite your agents, distributors, suppliers and residents in your international communities to meet with members of your company and share their ideas on what you could be doing better.
  • The more diverse your company is, the more ideas and insight you’ll have to draw from. Take advantage of your international status to increase diversity at all levels of your company, while ensuring inclusiveness for all. 

2. Adopt a strength-based approach

Too often, we approach our daily business operations (and our everyday lives!) as a dreary to-do list of “problems to be solved.” The problem with problems, however, is that there is a never-ending supply of them. Focusing solely on a deficit-based approach soon sucks the energy of a corporation, fostering an environment of perpetual negativity.

Moreover, while a culture based on “solving problems” can begin to foster innovation, it doesn’t take it as far as it could. Innovation looks beyond solving the current problem, and looks at “what could be.”

Applying a strength-based approach is probably the easiest path to innovation you can implement, as it simply involves flipping your attitude upside down, to see situations as opportunities rather than problems.

How to apply this learning to your exporting company:

  • To achieve a pervasive and lasting organizational cultural shift, your people must be excited at the prospect. A strength-based approach at every meeting helps foster positivity, engagement and optimism.
  • Rather than look at the budget review and focus on what places you need to cut back, look at what resources you have and imagine the possibilities you could achieve. As an international company, what partnerships and collaborations could you develop to access or share resources and efficiencies?
  • Just as you make time for your employees to solve problems, provide dedicated, scheduled time for them to imagine “what could be” or to work on projects that interest them. If you don’t make time for your employees to be innovative, your company won’t be innovative.

3. Create cultures of belonging

In companies that crunch metrics and numbers for lunch and focus on productivity and the bottom line, “creating cultures of belonging” sounds decidedly un-businesslike.

But cultures of belonging are not simply a “nice to have”: recent brain-based research is showing that emotions are critical to innovation, and fostering an environment that is calm, accepting, and enjoyable enhances it. Common sense tells us this is true. People who feel intimidated or that they are not valued are less likely to share their ideas.

How to apply this learning to your exporting company:

  • As a diverse company working in a variety of markets, encourage listening and storytelling in your everyday operations and events. The brain is hardwired to learn from storytelling, and by learning about others’ diverse experiences and perspectives, your team will have more insight to feed their innovation.
  • Make it safe for employees to express their ideas. Encouraging mentor relationships can help shyer employees to do so.
  • View celebration as an attitude, rather than an event. Celebrate successes large and small every day, rather than waiting for an annual gathering to do so.