The foundation for innovation — culture

David Nichols
David Nichols,
EY Americas Advisory Innovation & Alliances Leader

Launching an innovation program can be an energizing time for an enterprise. It can start in many different places and for many different reasons. With the proliferation of data and the diversity in education and experiences, innovation has become ubiquitous. In many cases, innovation “happens over there” by a few executives or teams, operating separately from the rest of the business.



At EY, I am responsible for facilitating innovation throughout our consulting business. As we formalized those efforts, the most common question we’d hear from our people was “How can I get involved with our innovation initiative?” The only answer we had at the moment was that “Unfortunately, you can’t unless you are part of the core team” … and we hated that answer! I’d leave those exchanges with a profound sense of guilt. Not only was this diluting their passion and interest, but we were missing out on the opportunity to harness this ambition and the potential contributions they could make. We needed to change our approach. Innovation is not something that can sit in a silo, it needs to be part of everyone’s responsibility and mindset. The most successful companies are the ones that embed innovation into all aspects of the business. It’s not having ping pong tables, free lunches and open workspaces for your employees. It’s the overall company disposition: how they organize the business, how they reward their employees, how they talk and how they listen. It’s their culture. Innovation was the foundation for their business, and it’s fueled by their culture. And this is where we started our journey.

Nice to meet you Ms. Ambassador

Finding people throughout the company who have a true passion for innovation was not the issue. How we could harness that passion and make them part of the process became the question. We needed to give them a say in our future and have them evangelize our successes. We needed to cultivate this energy, so we created a program to activate “Innovation Ambassadors.” This initiative quickly formed into a movement within EY and  has become the foundation for our innovation initiatives.

Since its inception 18 months ago, thousands of practitioners have enrolled to become “Innovation Ambassadors.” This program provides the platform and resources for them to engage in innovation no matter their career level or their primary assignments. Ambassadors have the opportunity to host or participate in a number of innovation-related activities including: contributing to ideation campaigns, hosting or attending innovation workshops and writing internal publications to share their innovation voice. They are kept up-to-date on the latest corporate innovations and emerging technology trends through a speaker series featuring some of the most influential minds and most-watched Ted Talk speakers. Recognizing that cultural change is both a top-down and bottom-up process, the program has been both executive sponsored, and localized in each office — providing the opportunity to create and shape smaller communities that contribute to the program’s overall identity.

Breaking ground and getting started

By building a program focused on embedding a culture of innovation, we embrace three philosophies:

  1. Anyone/anytime: Everyone is welcome to participate at any time to enable innovation to happen “everywhere.” This visibility and transparency allows a true community to form.
  2. Connected independence: We support local office autonomy which allows the ambassadors to leverage and shape the program to their needs.
  3. Sourcing the crowd: The best ideas will likely come from unexpected places. Fostering an anyone or anytime framework will require the need to harness these ideas and coordinate with the extended innovation team. Most enterprises that move to this model will require a technology platform to capture these ideas.

These philosophies can assist you to create an innovation environment that reaches all interested innovators on their terms. It provides the structure required to harness the best collective thinking while allowing enough independence to foster the desired culture.

The threads that make the quilt

The essence of an organization’s purpose is its culture. The heart of an organizations culture are its people. The best way to innovate is to become a continuous learning organization and foster a culture of innovation that is truly engrained in the organization’s DNA. This will help to empower creativity and disseminate ideas in a way that doesn’t only reward success and punish failures.

Organizations can empower creative thinking by embracing the imperative that successful innovation does not come from technology; it comes from people. It’s not a “one-time” activity and it doesn’t happen “over there.” Those eager to drive innovation are those willing to take risks that will allow today’s companies to become tomorrow’s enterprises. A culture of innovation will be your foundation.

Legal disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author only and do not represent the views of any of the member firms of Ernst & Young Global Limited.

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