Applying UX Principles to Create a Culture of Innovation

Corporate culture is a constant work in progress, especially for enterprise organizations. While corporate leaders may envy the innovative, adaptable cultures of startups, it can be difficult to instill a startup mentality across a large organization. Internal roadblocks like legacy systems, siloed employees and outdated corporate values can easily derail a cultural shift, no matter how badly your organization needs change.

While many enterprise leaders have embraced the value of user experience for their customers, it’s rare for companies to apply those principles when trying to change corporate culture. Corporate leaders often lack the tools to motivate employee participation. Embracing innovation means taking risks, at every level of your organization – employees are unlikely to chase risky ideas just for the fun of it.

When it comes to transforming a legacy culture to one of innovation, a little bit of UX goes a long way.

Tell the Right Story

Anyone who’s read Start With Why knows that people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. The same goes for motivating your employees. Creating the case for cultural change requires a compelling, relatable narrative which employees can apply to their daily responsibilities. Nearly three years ago, my agency went through a radical shift in process, culture and organization. We didn’t start by reshuffling teams or suddenly changing our pricing structure; we started with a story told by new company values.

For us, we believed that elegant code and software can truly change lives – those of our programmers, our clients and even their customers. We didn’t change our culture to make more money or grow the company (though those things did happen), we changed to have real impact in the world.

As much as corporate innovators must be big thinkers, it’s just as important they become master storytellers. Tying your brand story to innovation empowers employees with an emotional connection to the work they do. Once you know the story to tell, you need to encourage participation.

Measure Against Innovative Values

The C-Suite makes the case for innovation, but employees need to be empowered with clear ways to pursue new ideas. It’s not enough to simply give employees 20% of their time to think about the next big thing – everyone in the organization must understand why and how they can drive innovative ideas. Giving people 2 hours per day to dream may not work for your company, but you can create values-based ways to push people out of their day-to-day routines.

Corporate values provide the framework for pushing innovation, but employees typically need a push to get going. To make values matter, they should be applied to employee performance ratings. For instance, if it’s your legal department’s role to shoot down risky ideas, rate them on the times they gave the greenlight to an innovative project. Employee incentives and performance metrics should be tied closely to the change your company needs to see. Without measuring the ways employees push boundaries, they won’t feel rewarded for the risks you’re asking them to take.

Remove Roadblocks

On the customer side, we work constantly to optimize user flows and make conversion as simple as possible. When transforming corporate culture, it can be difficult for managers and leaders to get out of their employees’ way. The simple truth is that no corporate mandate will effectively shift culture; staff need the freedom to push boundaries and pursue new ideas. Creative cultures thrive on collaboration and the free flow of ideas. That doesn’t mean you need to tear down the cubicles for open floor plans in your office, but you do need to remove the barriers that keep people from sharing ideas and collaborating on new solutions.

Enterprise organizations often have entrenched processes and management layers that lend themselves more to corporate inertia than innovation (after all, the typical corporate pyramid does not incentivize risk taking). Rather than focusing on the process, focus on results.

Iterate Through Feedback

Ultimately, finding a cultural sweet spot will require buy-in from the entire organization, not just a single innovation group or team. Rolling out new values and processes to drive innovation should start with a company-wide discussion of goals, and continue through ongoing feedback and reassessment to ensure you’re pursuing innovation in every department.

User feedback is the fundamental element of any UX strategy, and it should absolutely apply to cultural changes. You’re not going to get it right on the first try. You might discover one area of innovation isn’t as valuable as another. Employees won’t love all the new processes you set in place, you may have to make staffing changes, and some ideas just won’t pan out.

If you’re serious about building a culture of innovation, it’s vital to build multiple feedback channels throughout the company. Regularly survey managers, employees and stakeholders to monitor progress. Take complaints seriously and don’t be afraid to stop initiatives that aren’t working.

Though transforming company culture won’t happen overnight, empowering employees with creative freedom and a compelling narrative will significantly increase your chances of instilling a vibrant, innovative culture.