innovation culture

From Dreaming to Doing: How to Create an Innovation Culture in Startups

Editor of the Harvard Business Review, Theodore Levitt, rightly said: “Creativity is thinking up new things. Innovation is doing new things.” The goal of any startup is to think up new ideas and get them done.

I was recently asked by a growing startup if they should have a person or team fully dedicated to innovation. “How do we make sure we don’t become the incumbent we’ve worked so hard to disrupt?”

Many organizations may hire a chief innovation officer (CIO) to help achieve this goal. However, if you’re considering hiring a CIO, it would be unwise to do so in the early stages of your startup.

Of course, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. But to make it easy … no company with fewer than 100 employees should be thinking about a CIO. Instead, aim to foster innovation in each person as everyone needs to be a CIO initially.

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Startups foster a strong workplace culture of innovation when they have a clear vision of what that means to them from the beginning.

Incorporating a well-defined mission from the start will help prospective employees know what they’re buying into. And laying out an organization’s ethos will make it easier to find like-minded people who can collaborate effectively.

Innovation doesn’t need to be a mere dream. Startups can quickly build a workplace-wide culture following the four stages of innovation.

1. Identify user motivation

Startups succeed when enough people with the same problem are willing to pay for the solution, so identifying user motivations is crucial. Teams need high levels of emotional intelligence to recognize their own desires so they can monitor their emotional connection to a project. Teams are then better able to identify and separate their desires from user motivations and can create more suitable products as a result.

Cultivating a deep understanding of the user’s problem from all directions and strengthening your product-market fit depends on having a diverse team. Diversity means a wider range of experiences that can inform a higher overall level of emotional intelligence. Having more voices protects against cognitive blind spots and strategic inertia.

2. Develop empathy for user needs

As teams more effectively recognize user desire, they become more able to empathize with user needs. Building an emotional relationship with the users often reveals hidden elements of the user’s experience. As a result, forming an empathetic connection helps find exciting and fresh opportunities in the market.

To develop empathy for user needs, startups should listen to user feedback throughout the development process. Listening empathetically to responses creates a strong path for innovation as feedback is more effectively incorporated into each design stage. By keeping the customer central in their focus, teams can tailor the best possible user experience (UX) and products.

The Customer Is Always Right: Why Startups Should Pay Attention To CX Data

3. Separate problem from solution

The goal of any startup should be for teams to fall in love with problems, not solutions. Knowing when to let go of a prototype is critical for innovation as it allows for faster test cycles and reduces project downtime.

There’s no value in having an answer without a question. New technologies can be overly exciting, but fast prototyping and feedback cycles help make dreams a reality. Becoming overly attached to solutions can stifle the possibility of new ideas and flourishing innovation.

4. Pragmatically test and realize

To be pragmatic in product development is to be ready to accept failure – it’s part of the explorative beginning. At first, focus only on the essentials of a solution, and let go of the rest. Letting go quickly of nonessentials means you can save limited resources for your next try.

Make sure employees know it’s OK to fail so they have a psychologically safe space for experimentation. Be pragmatic with your testing. Breaking big solutions into smaller pieces helps maximize the amount of learning you can achieve from minimal inputs. Small-scale testing of solutions also increases your capability development cycle speed for an accelerated path to innovation.


  • Make sure your team has a high level of emotional intelligence.
  • Recruit diverse individuals with a wide range of experiences to draw from.
  • Build an emotional relationship and empathetic connection with the user.
  • Fall in love with the problem and not the idea for the solution.
  • Make sure everybody knows it’s OK to fail, but never OK not to learn.
  • Test small by breaking big experiments into smaller ones, so you can move fast.

Congratulations, your startup is growing! What’s next?

Over time, employees might stand out as candidates for a CIO role. Employees are happier when they have the potential for professional development, and innovation training can be an opportunity for motivated workers to excel and fuel organization-wide growth.

It’s important to remember there are also four different types of innovators: Front Runner, Problem Solver, People’s Person or Change Maker. Each has valuable attributes to bring to a team, so be sure to reward people’s contributions and give them opportunities to share their knowledge. Recognizing these people within your organization is how to draw on individual strengths to help whole teams excel.

Identifying innovators and equipping your team with the right tools are essential for spreading a culture of innovation throughout the workplace. Keeping opportunities to work on projects open to all employees is also beneficial for creating a self-motivated environment and increasing employee satisfaction.

Startups can go from dreaming to doing when they keep the customer’s needs and the end-to-end UX at the center of their development processes, and they keep a beginners mindset. Centering innovation as part of a company mission helps employees stay focused on problems rather than solutions.

While hiring a CIO at the beginning may be tempting, it is often better to hold off until later. Instead, encouraging experimentation from every employee in the early stages of your startup will embed innovation into a company-wide culture.

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