Recently, I came across a divine invention: the cupcake ATM from Sprinkles Cupcakes. Not only do Sprinkles' vending machines dispense cupcakes on-demand 24 hours a day, but they are also inclusive with their offerings, with both gluten-free and vegan options for cupcake lovers with dietary restrictions. 

I was so delighted by my experience at the cupcake ATM, I shared about it on all my social media channels. My network echoed my excitement and expressed intent to seek out a Sprinkles cupcake ATM near them.

This is the impact of real innovation. When your customers experience something remarkable, they tell their friends and family and word spreads. It's an ideal scenario for a company.

But even though organically earning word of mouth advertising is the desire, far too many companies don't demonstrate the courage needed to innovate in a meaningful way. No bueno.

Thus, to deliver products, services, and experiences that compel your customers to spread the word on your behalf, you've got to cultivate a culture that is ripe for innovation to thrive. Here are three ways to do it.

1. Embrace problems as opportunities.

At its core, business is about solving problems. As we go about our day to day work, most of us are presented with problems frequently. But often we don't take the opportunity to find a way to fix those problems, in favor of focusing on deadlines or whatever else has our attention at the moment.

Sprinkles' owner Candace Nelson told City Lab the cupcake ATM was born in response to a simple problem:

"I conceived the idea of an automatic cupcake machine after having late-night sugar cravings while pregnant with my second son. Even as Sprinkles' founder, I couldn't get my midnight cupcake fix! I thought 'there has to be a way' and so the concept of 24-Hour Sprinkles was born!"

Consider making a list of the challenges your customers encounter as it relates to the problem you help them solve. Then set aside regular times to brainstorm potential ways to address that problem, even if the ideas seem crazy or impossible. That's probably a good sign that you're on to something.

2. Develop a willingness to experiment.

How many times have you seen a great idea shot down because it was too different from the way business normally gets done within your company?

If you want to be an innovative company, you've got to get comfortable trying new things to see how the market responds. Even when it feels uncomfortable.

That's what Jeff Bezos and the team at Amazon do. Bezos cites their willingness to experiment as one of their core keys to success. In his 2015 letter to shareholders, he  notes why many companies struggle to do it effectively:

"To invent you have to experiment, and if you know in advance that it's going to work, it's not an experiment. Most large organizations embrace the idea of invention, but are not willing to suffer the string of failed experiments necessary to get there."

Start experimenting with different projects on a small scale here and there. The learnings you get will help you make the necessary adjustments to make more calculated bets on innovative initiatives that can pay off for you in a big way.

3. Reframe no, to "yes, if..."

When I worked my corporate job in healthcare, every piece of promotional material had to be approved by representatives in clinical, regulatory, and at times legal, prior to it ever going out the door to a customer.

The process was grueling, and at times painful. Many of my fellow marketers felt like their hands were tied when it came to innovation due to the strict interpretation of the rules by the reviewers.

But once our head of healthcare compliance told us his philosophy on the review process, our entire outlook changed in terms of our perceived limitations with this process.

Instead of a decision coming down to a no, he advised we should always work to identify what would be required to get a yes. Knowing that we could get a yes, if we did X, Y, or Z, made a world of difference in helping us think through creative solutions to accomplish our goals that were a win for all.

Cultivating a "yes, if..." culture can be transformational for your business too. By reframing what it would take to get an initiative approved, you empower your team to get creative to find a way to innovate.

Published on: Dec 14, 2017