Innovation is sexy. It's why so many business leaders admire and follow companies like Apple, Netflix, and SpaceX. They revel in the excitement of charting new territory to introduce products, services, and experiences that change their customers' perceptions of "normal."

Because inventing new and unique ways of operating can improve the quality of your customers' experience, it can bring outsize returns for your business. That's why many companies pepper "innovative" in their mission, vision, and values statements. But for far too many businesses, that's as far as they get in their quest. They struggle with how to innovate in practice. No bueno.

Innovation is a mindset. To fully live it, you have to build a company that bakes the process of innovating into the fabric of your DNA. That means it needs to be a core part of your company culture. Here's how.

1. Don't be satisfied with the status quo.

Business is about solving problems. And if you put relentless focus on solving challenges your customers experience, even ones that they and others in your industry have come to accept, you will discover new ways to serve them better.

I chatted with Vikram Khemka, director of technology at Cimpress, a multibillion-dollar mass-customization business with brands such as Vistaprint in its portfolio. Vikram told me that innovation manifests in his company's culture through instilling in the team an attitude of refusing to accept the status quo or succumb to the notion that there are some problems too difficult to solve. He explained one way the company translated that philosophy into something tangible.

If you have an image that's not very high quality, like it's a low resolution image ... it obviously will not print well. And one of the challenges is that even though it might look reasonable on screen, on a physical product, when it's ink on paper, it's not really going to look good ...

Typically the way people handle this is by just giving their customers a warning that, "Hey, your image is low quality. Could you give us a better image?" And that's what we did for a long time as well. But what we did recently is leveraged machine learning to create something that on the fly can double the resolution of your image, and still provide an output that will be appealing and acceptable to a human.

The new service that is activated automatically on the back end has dramatically improved Cimpress's customers' experience and has resulted in a 3 percent conversion rate increase as well.

Think about problems that are common for your customers to experience throughout your industry. Then deploy your team to brainstorm solutions to solve it. 

2. Be willing to invest.

In most instances, innovation requires resources. And when resources are scarce, funds devoted to tackling something that isn't business critical are often redirected to areas deemed more important.

To build an innovative culture, you've got to make it a core business priority. And priorities must be funded and resourced. Only then will you make real progress toward achieving your goal.

Over time, that investment in new technologies, data, and know-how can be a source of competitive advantage for you. As a knowledge-based business, I invest in developing expertise in particular topics to enable me to be an asset my clients turn to to help them solve problems in those related areas. 

Cimpress's cumulative investment in mass-customization technologies over the years has enabled it to improve its efficiency and effectiveness at delivering products in comparison with others in its industry.

Investment in innovation doesn't have to be an either-or proposition when it comes to managing long- and short-term goals. Align your focus of tackling challenges in areas that will help you succeed at both. 

3. Be willing to fail.

This is a tough one for many companies. When I left my corporate career to build my own business, one of the things I had to quickly unlearn was the aversion to failure. In larger companies, failure was career limiting, thus we avoided it at all costs.

But with startups, failures are viewed as steppingstones that propel you toward success. As you work to tackle solutions to unmet needs, there will likely be many iterations of experimentation as you get a pulse on what does and doesn't work, and why. As you learn from each attempt, you get closer to a breakthrough.

To get more comfortable with failure, start framing it as an experiment. Begin with small projects to manage your risk. Then work to increase your threshold for experimentation as you grow more comfortable.

You can build a culture of innovation. It isn't reserved for big-name companies with deep pockets. Get started by embracing the mindset, and then aligning your priorities and actions to support your quest.

Published on: Jul 12, 2018