Six Ways to Create—and Sustain—a Culture of Innovation

?What If! took 50 executives on immersive visits to Facebook and Four Seasons. Together we probed how two companies with different missions share similar approaches to igniting innovation. Here's what we learned—and how to apply it to your own organization.
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How does a company create a culture of innovation? And what can I do to sustain it?

Recently ?What If! and a cross-section of global innovation leaders set out to answer these questions together. As part of the World Innovation Forum, an annual conference that tackles pressing issues in the field, ?What If! hosted 50 executives on a tour of two companies that excel at harnessing creativity: Four Seasons and Facebook.

Our purpose was to help delegates gather first-hand insights around the culture of innovation by looking at how two organizations at the forefront build and maintain their environments—and leverage them to live out their respective missions.

The first, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, has been transforming the hospitality industry for 50 years (expanding from a single hotel in Toronto to 90 global properties). Its new company-wide innovation program, BLUEWATER, equips 35,000 employees with tools and behaviors needed to ideate, pilot, and refine guest experiences.

The second, Facebook, has innovated around the same purpose since it launched in 2004: giving people the power to share and connect. Even with a user base of nearly 1 billion people, Facebook continues to empower employees to improve upon successful pieces of its platform, resulting in expansive changes like its News Feed and Timeline.

Throughout our field trip, we encouraged delegates to look for the stories behind the companies’ theories and models, and to regard everything as stimulus—from the posters in Facebook’s hallways (“The journey is 1% finished”) to the dishes of blue candies at the Four Seasons New York (showcasing the intense level of buy-in). This was their chance to leave the office and hear from the people who do the heavy lifting, the foot soldiers in the innovation trenches.

Despite the differences in what these companies do, they share a set of principles around innovation culture. Here are six key lessons that emerged during our field trip:

Know thyself

There’s no singular method to creating a culture of innovation. Establishing one, and making it stick, depends on understanding the climate. How will the firm react during periods of experimentation? Which structures, behaviors, goals, and people must be in place to unlock innovation? And which, if positioned improperly, would create discord?

To be clear, this isn’t about avoiding discomfort. For Four Seasons, giving every employee, from bartenders to line cooks, the power to suggest new ideas was a scary proposition. Four Seasons hotels are organized around each property’s general manager, and its culture is risk-averse (its well-to-do clientele relies on a flawless customer experience). But Four Seasons realized that the core of its culture was service—and that employees who dealt with guests every day were on the frontlines of the customer-service experience. So BLUEWATER sources and pilots ideas through general managers, while also soliciting fresh solutions from elsewhere within the company.

Consider, on the other hand, the three tenets of Facebook: 1) Move fast and break things; (2) What would you do if you weren’t afraid?; and (3) Put people at the center of things. While suited to the upstart culture of Facebook, these concepts would never work at Four Seasons, where moving fast and breaking things is very much not what guests hope for. The structured way of life at the Four Seasons would conflict with a culture built around organic flexibility at Facebook. “We don’t belabor, we don’t debate, we move,” said Eric Berman, who, as a client partner at Facebook, helps brands craft social strategy. To harness this energy, Berman told us, CEO Mark Zuckerberg has a list of “non-goals.” These restraints are necessary to guide a company driven by action.

Innovation is business as usual

Innovation isn’t just a pet project. From R&D to human resources, customer service to financial operations, success relies on a constant evaluation of creativity—it’s everyone’s job, all the time. This attitude has been built into Facebook’s DNA from the start. (The word “innovation” isn’t even in employees’ vocabulary. When asked where the company’s “innovation team” sat, Berman was confused. “What do you mean? They’re all out there,” he said, waving his hands at the office.)

Four Seasons’ Stacy Oliver, who helps run BLUEWATER as part of the Global Product and Innovation team, echoed this sentiment: “This is a way of doing business for us. It’s something we rely on. We’ve incorporated [BLUEWATER] into all general meetings … It’s how we hire, develop, and manage.” It’s working. In a video presentation to delegates, a Four Seasons housekeeper in Hong Kong said: “Before BLUEWATER I would go into rooms to make sure they’re clean. Now I look for opportunities to wow.”

Just do it

You want to move quickly when innovating. Moving too slowly can be the death knell of new ideas. At Facebook and Four Seasons, it’s not pure speed that’s key, though. It’s the speed that comes from being decisive and having vision.

For Four Seasons, this principle is expressed in identifying “just do it” ideas—no-brainers that can be executed quickly and without excessive supervision—as opposed to ideas that require more input. It also means piloting certain concepts at targeted properties, then fanning them out once they’re a proven success. Fifteen-minute room service was born at the Four Seasons in Boston and soon adopted by properties worldwide.

At Facebook experimentation and iteration fuel innovation’s engine. Every change to Facebook’s platform is beta tested; the agents of change are empowered to drive ideas forward. This orientation requires relinquishing a bit of control. When Facebook wanted to translate its platform into multiple languages, engineers created an app that let users translate the site themselves (and vote on which translation was most accurate). In less than 24 hours, more than 90 percent of the site was translated into French.

Knock failure off its pedestal

“Embrace failure.” “Fail forward.” “Fail hard, fail fast.” These are clichés, and having this attitude is a learned skill. Why? Because failure stinks. Instead of glorifying failure, these companies knock it off its pedestal, disempower it, and move on.

“When an idea doesn’t work, we’re careful not to call anyone into the office,” said Sam Ioannidis, Hotel Manager at Four Seasons New York. The company stopped labeling something a failure or a mistake, instead calling it a glitch. The rationale is that a failure or a mistake is final—something you can’t take back—but a glitch is an opportunity to recover and build a relationship in the process.

Failure doesn’t need to be embraced. However, it needs to be accepted as part of life, business, and innovation. “We expect and value failure as part of the process,” said Oliver. The culture is even more extreme at Facebook, where Berman explained that no one is criticized for failing but, rather, for not trying hard enough.

Lead infectiously

Strong leaders don’t just maintain control. They communicate their vision clearly, which enables others to think expansively.

To achieve that ripple effect in their organizations, Mark Zuckerberg and Four Seasons CEO Katie Taylor make their messaging simple, repeatable, and relatable. Zuckerberg has championed Facebook’s mission with such focus that the motto of “moving fast and breaking things” has permeated popular culture. Taylor has worked with senior leaders to develop an innovation handbook and videos for 35,000 employees.

Both executives recognize that while strong, senior-level leadership is crucial, lower-level leadership should shepherd innovation. “Nothing happens in a hotel unless the GM decides it’s important to him or her,” said Chris Hunsberger, Four Seasons Executive Vice President of Product and Innovation. To secure buy-in, Hunsberger’s team selected some of its most influential—and perhaps skeptical—GMs to shape BLUEWATER and join the global roadshow.

Innovation is a human condition

Innovation is not a rare quality inherent in a lucky few—it’s a way of thinking and behaving that comes naturally. An organization’s job is to foster the right climate to unleash its employees’ innate innovative tendencies. “We didn’t leave anyone out of the equation, from busboys to servers to line cooks,” said John Johnson, an Executive Chef in charge of implementing BLUEWATER at Four Seasons New York. The creativity and energy required for innovation were in Four Seasons employees before BLUEWATER existed; the program just gave them a channel to contribute, a common language, and rules to play by. “It’s like our employees were waiting for this, like someone had lifted the lid off,” said Oliver.

Facebook and Four Seasons have dissimilar missions, and yet there are commonalities in how they go about them. Both have a clear understanding of who they are—and who they are not; incorporate innovation into their DNA; understand the importance of momentum; see the value in failure; encourage expansive thinking beyond senior leadership; and recognize that innovation is innate in all of us. These are similarities that translate not just in the tech and hospitality sectors, but to any business looking to build and sustain a culture of innovation.

FROM the greenhouse