How to Build a Product Culture of Innovation

No comments

innovationIs the change management process of 5, 10 or even 3 years ago still applicable in this fast-pasted, global economy?  As a product person, I constantly see the tension between the need to stay ahead of the fierce competition yet meet short-term organizational goals.  How can you be both strategic for the short and long term?  And, at the same time, not overwhelm people with change and negatively impact employee engagement.

Traditional organizations are not built to shift on a frequent basis nor handle the challenges of rapid change.  John Kotter proposes an alternative….”a second operating system, devoted to the design and implementation of strategy that uses an agile structure” (Kotter, 2012).

Some of the key elements of this second structure are

  • Many change agents. Engage as many volunteers as possible in the agent effort.  Ideally up to 10%.    They should be volunteers who are energized and empowered to be nimble and be the inspiration for change throughout the organization.
  • The spirit of volunteerism, and the desire to work together for a shared purpose. The culture needs to support both a want-to and a get-to attitude. In other words, people should be empowered to be part of agile change processes.
  • Heart and Head. Your change agents must have an emotional connection to the organization to want to contribute to positive change.
  • Leadership, not just management. It’s not about processes and project management. It’s about inspiration, action, empowerment and celebration.

John Kotter has many good ideas.  How can we take some of his concepts, apply them to product organizations, and build change from the ground up, versus the top down.  From a product perspective, how would this work? Here are some suggestions.

  • Hire people with not only the right skills, but the right attitude who have the passion and enthusiasm for success and agility.
  • Find the right 10% of product managers, product marketing, engineers who can help spread the energy involved with agility and change throughout the organization.
  • Reward the small wins. Whether it’s a new product idea or someone going out of their way for someone else, celebrate the actions people take.  Small actions lead to more small actions.  And soon you have an engaged product group, doing what it takes in this fast paced environment.
  • Empower people to suggest ideas. Even the crazy ideas.  Create a psychologically safe environment where people are encouraged to take risk and propose ideas.  This means management needs to create a culture where people are trusted and comfortable collaborating amongst themselves and with management.  It should not take a formal business case and presentation for an individual contributor to be able to brainstorm with their VP.
  • Create inspiration within everyday activities. Whether it’s a management action such as a public ‘kudos’ or a peer-to-peer high five.  Encourage people to share what they are doing.  Share the innovation and inspiration.
  • Formal and informal leaders…..act in ways to encourage change. Let your teams see that you are open to new ideas and are frequently incorporating those ideas to create small wins.  Let your teams experiment with new ideas.  See what works and what does not work.

Just implementing a few of these ideas….can you see new
product and process ideas being created?  Can you see your employees’ engagement levels increase?  We know engagement leads to productivity, innovation, reduced turnover, and inspiration.  Change is not only about large processes and structural changes.  Change is about the small opportunities that exist in our day to day activities that help the organization move forward.


  • Kotter, J. P. (2012). Accelerate. Harvard Business Review, 90(11), 45-58.