11 ways to create a culture of innovation via Chicago Innovation Awards’ Past Winners Showcase

For eleven years the Chicago Innovation Awards have been celebrating the creative spirit of Chicago by recognizing and honoring innovative new local products and services. So it came as no surprise that at last Thursday’s Past Winners Showcase at Red Frog Events, we were surrounded by some of the greatest minds in the city. The panel discussion included some of the most successful Chicago Innovation Award winners along with a few special guests. The focus of the night was on how to create and lead a culture of innovation. 

Below are eleven tips from the panel of innovation experts:

1. Create the right environment

Innovators are made, not born and an environment of shared leadership that encourages inclusiveness and collaboration helps to stimulate innovation. “It starts with a small team of people with common characteristics: a passion for what their customers need, the ability to understand that need and solve it.  They must truly have a desire to make an impact and do something better and different,” said Tom Kuczmarkski, co-founder of the Chicago Innovation Awards.

2. Have a desire to change the world

Entrepreneurs get involved with new companies because they want to change the world. “The people that came to work with me had to leave big, safe jobs with big companies. They left because they had a vision of what we were going to do and how we were going to make a difference in the world,” said Jeffrey S. Aronin, CEO of Paragon Pharmaceuticals.

3. Celebrate everything, big and small

“A key element of building innovation at our company is that people feel like they are winning. We celebrate everything—we don’t wait for the big things, we celebrate the little things and they carry over,” said Mark O’Connell, President and CEO of SAVO.

4. Stimulate innovation with purpose and profit

Creating a rewarding environment where employees have a purpose and a profit will stimulate innovation. “People need to feel like they are making a difference. I give everyone who works for me a little bit of equity so they own it and enjoy what they are doing,” said Aronin.

5. Crowd source internally

Larger and more established companies can continue to innovative by looking for ideas internally. “Make sure that everyone has a chance to be heard. Great ideas can come from anywhere. We have launched an internal platform for crowdsourcing ideas around the firm. It is a social network so users can like and comment on others’ ideas, asking to bring them to life,” said Nancy Ruscheinski, Chief Innovation Officer at Edelman.

6. Understand that mentoring goes both ways

Increasing innovation in Chicago is simple: find more ways for mentoring to take place. “I like the idea of startups and entrepreneurs being able to mentor large corporations—I think it needs to flow both ways and the large corporations could learn a lot,” said Kuczmarkski. 

7. Solve the problem before worrying about funding

Look at innovation from the perspective of the customer or end user before stressing about financing your idea. “It’s not about getting all the resources together. First you must understand what the opportunity is: the problem that exists and the solution that we could possibly create. Use that as the rallying point to get additional resources and investment behind it. Too often the resource flag is raised before we have been able to identify a potential opportunity,” said Kuczmarkski.

8. Define your “pain point”

To fuel innovation, it’s important to understand the pain point: the urgent and often difficult-to-solve needs of your target audience. “If you can understand the pain point of the market the money will come because you will inspire investors or customers. It’s important to keep your eye on the prize: a way to monetize your idea. If you don’t the culture of innovation inside your company will get eaten alive,” said O’Connell.

9. Be your own consumer

Sometimes the easiest way to market your product is to be your own consumer. “At Threadless, we built a product for us—something that we identified we needed. Once we decided that we were selling this product for us, it was easy. It is way easier to find product market fit if you can confidently say ‘I would pay for this,’” said Harper Reed, now the CTO for Obama for America.

10. Take risks

Innovation is a collaborative effort, based on decisions and passion. “Innovation comes from the people and environment we create, it’s not just process and strategy. You need to let people take risks and give them permission to fail,” said Kuczmarkski. “A good work environment is one that trusts, empowers and creates leaders while allowing employees to think outside the box,” agrees Sarah Neukom, Producer of Positivity at Red Frog Events. (What an awesome job title, by the way.)

11. Be fearless

Chicago is great for opportunities, but the city sometimes has a fear of failure. “We have a culture where people don’t want to take changes. In the high-tech community there are places where failure is not a stigma, but a badge of honor. We need more people who leave big companies and aren’t afraid to fail,” said Aronin.

More information about the Chicago Innovation Awards or the panel of speakers at this event can be found here.

Filed in: Startup Community