How to Turn Your Company into an Innovation Machine

Jan 24, 2019

By Terry Jones

The future for any business today depends entirely on its ability to innovate. Our youngest workers, the Millennials, know that. They are the group known for pioneering new ideas, rethinking processes, end-running hierarchies, and solving problems by simply doing what makes sense to them. We need to listen to them; they’re the innovators.

However, a worldwide survey of adults born after 1982 (released in January ’13 by Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited) found that only 26% believe their bosses are doing enough to encourage innovation.

So, what steps should business leaders take to ensure they hear employees’ ideas, recognize opportunities, and establish a clear path to execution? Here are strategies that will help them foster innovation:

1. Build a culture of experimentation. Not every project will succeed, but you can’t learn from mistakes if you don’t allow them to happen. Always analyze what went wrong. Why didn’t a strategy work? To use a sports analogy, watch the “game films" to improve and learn as much from failure as you do from success. One fast and easy way to experiment is to test options out online. Whether it’s polling customers, measuring which approach gets the best response, or allowing a segment of your customer base to test drive a new tool, the results can be invaluable.

2. Kill projects not people. In many companies, people stop offering up ideas and volunteering for projects because the punishment for failure is greater than the reward for success. Lunch with the boss or a $100 bonus do not compensate for the risk of being demoted or fired, or suffering a tarnished reputation. When a project fails in a company with a culture of experimentation, the first thing you should do is say, “Bob, what would you like to work on now?”

3. Break thru the “Bozone layer.” Some of the greatest ideas for innovation come from the employees on the front lines—those in direct contact with customers or production. But their ideas will never float up to the executive suite if you’ve created a “Bozone layer” by making it too risky for middle managers to experiment (see no. 2). While you’re turning the culture around, find ways to reach down to the front lines to solicit ideas. Implement them and reward the contributors with a big, public shout out—which will help you start changing for the culture.

4. Install “sensors” to pick up customers’ ideas. Don’t just look to employees for innovation— learn from your customers. They have ideas for new products and new uses for existing products, and their customer service complaints are a fertile source of ideas for improvement. Listen to them! Social media and a forum on the company website are good sensors for picking up ideas. Glad Wrap’s “1000 Uses” site is a terrific example. For customer service complaints, Travelocity installed a lobby phone booth where anyone in the company could listen in on customer service calls. Once a month, everyone was expected to provide feedback on at least two of those calls, to suggest an improvement that would eliminate similar calls in the future, and to come up with a work-around for the interim.

he following AMA seminars will help you further explore the ideas discussed in this article:

About the Author(s)

Terry Jones founded in 1996 and led the company as president and CEO until May 2002. He is managing principal of On, Inc., a consultancy he cofounded to help companies in their transition to the digital economy. He serves as chairman of the board at, which he also helped found. He is the author of ON Innovation: Turning ON Innovation in Your Culture, Teams and Organization (, a light-hearted but practical guide for fostering and innovation.