Building an innovation culture may sound like a cliché, but this is no optional extra. Many businesses will start off with a big new idea but will struggle to meet new challenges over time and end up failing. Being able to innovate is vital.

It is not hard to find a list of famous companies where a lack of innovation proved their downfall. From those that failed to adjust to completely new technology like Blockbuster and Polaroid to those such as General Motors which failed to upgrade and improve their cars, history is littered with firms that failed to innovate, plan for the future and come up with new ideas.

While these businesses withered away, others took their place, using new technology like online streaming and digital photography to grab an increased market share by offering something more convenient and user-friendly than what went before.

The key for established companies is to either match the innovations that emerging companies offer or lead the market with their own new ideas. But to do that requires an open culture that enables a lot of listening and open speaking to take place, in order to identify problems, discover solutions and develop new ideas.

Making company culture work this way means breaking with tradition in many cases, but is essential, according to leadership mentor Simon Sinek, author of The Infinite Game

His concept was that the game many firms think they are playing is one that can be thought of in terms of their short-term goals, such as the next quarter’s profits. This is incorrect, however, as this is in fact an ‘infinite game’ in which the rules keep changing, the players keep changing and the ‘winners’ are not easy to identify.  

The successful firms, he notes, are those that understand this and therefore value innovation, as this is the only way of dealing with the changes and challenges that come along.  

A crucial element of this approach comes from being willing to take tough decisions. Mr Sinek talked about how the Apple Macintosh computer emerged out of Steve Jobs insisting that the user-friendly graphic user interfaces seen at another firm should be copied by the company.

Addressing an objection that this would “blow up” Apple after it had invested heavily in a different project, Jobs responded “If we don’t blow up our company somebody else will”.

This sort of radical thinking when innovating means bosses must be willing to think the unthinkable, and to free up staff to identify problems and solutions that their bosses might not want to hear without fear of recrimination. Few things could be worse than the leader who wants ‘yes men’ (and women) who will tell them what they want to hear for fear of the consequences of doing otherwise.

Clearly, such an approach will not support innovation. Instead, smart leadership should encourage challenging and unorthodox thinking. As another business expert, Tony Robbins, puts it, firms that are not afraid to try new things will succeed because even their failures will teach them useful lessons they can apply. 

By being willing to listen, encourage new ideas and accept some mis-steps on the way to discovering and implementing great new ideas, leaders can foster an open, innovative culture that will enable businesses to adapt, act as first movers and keep themselves playing well in an ‘infinite game’.