What NewCos Are Teaching Us About a Culture of Innovation


When we look at the corporate cultures of “new” or “next generation” companies, whether in the tech sector or elsewhere, it’s clear they’ve challenged traditional paradigms of how a company should operate. This is evident on many levels, and in particular with talent management and how their people are succeeding in leading the innovation agenda.

Leaders of these companies operate on the assumption that their competitive advantage is transitory – always to be challenged – and their only real sustainable competitive advantage is their culture, and specifically, the innovation philosophy within.  

The very word innovation may sound buzzy these days, and it can be cliché, yet it’s a driver of the sustainable competitive advantage every business seeks. So what does it really mean? It can be defined as creating novel solutions to everyday problems. Or combining ideas to invent a unique solution. It’s not necessarily about finding new ideas, rather it’s about challenging old assumptions and re-anchoring to meet new realities. Think about some of the notable examples of our time: Airbnb, Uber, and Amazon.

Here are four dimensions of the NewCo cultures that can be applied to any business, no matter the industry:

Being intentional about the grander purpose.

Beyond enhancing shareholder value, what’s your firm’s innovation intent? Have you described the grander purpose of the difference you’ll make to your customers and the communities you serve? Your purpose should get people excited about the strategic direction you’re taking. If you’re developing new products or markets, parallel innovations need to happen internally to support that – from finance to customer service and your overall talent practices. What makes NewCos unique in this way is their often simultaneous mission to be both people and profit driven; as you articulate the business vision, so they should articulate theirs.

Innovation can be considered and incremental.

Innovation is most often about refining ideas over time, and allowing the voices to be heard that want to challenge old assumptions of how things have always been done. Make continuous improvement a part of your culture, and reward ideas that create efficiency or make pragmatic changes for the better. Allow time for post-project debriefs, consider the lessons learned, and celebrate wins and even fails when there’s advancement made because of them. Game-changing developments can be exciting and essential, but often small tweaks to existing products or policies can make the difference over the long term.

Innovation is the work of many minds.

The past or a traditional view has been that creativity and innovation is the by-product of a lone genius – Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs are close examples of this. In reality, creativity is the work of many minds, as teams help build and test ideas. It’s important then to give innovation the support it needs by allowing individuals to rotate out of various work or project teams, to hire for curiosity by asking candidates how they’ve solved problems at work, and to encourage individuals to reach out to those outside their usual network for ideas and support. Even 20 minutes set aside in a monthly management meeting can be valuable to raise new ideas or ask what problems are standing in the way of maximizing customer satisfaction or meeting your competition head on.

Innovation is not just for creatives.

Who is the most creative person you know? Not yourself? We all have the power to be creative and expand our capabilities for broader thinking and analysis. If new or refreshed ideas aren’t bubbling up in the daily work experience, it may be time to consider ways to welcome ideas from anyone: your junior admin person, your interns, or those who stand at the back wall in town hall meetings. Holding ‘Dream Big’ days or sessions can help switch things up and give people the space they need for undistracted thinking. If everyone around you is operating at over-capacity and running from meeting to meeting, creativity just won’t happen. Consider also the messaging spoken and heard in the flow of daily conversation, and especially those at the water cooler. Are you or others stiflers (“this won’t work because…”), or motivators (“how might this work?”). Anti-innovation messages will stop inspiration in its tracks.

Above all, the innovation cultures of these companies are characterized by flexible, agile and contemporary people practices that by their nature address individual needs better than a one-size-fits-all approach. More frequent performance check-ins for example, allow for timely examples of progress toward both business and professional goals and are reflective of and aligned with the more rapid product development cycles typical of these new companies.

Companies built or grown on the principles of innovation are proving their ability to leapfrog established organizations, and doing so with ease. Even if your company isn’t a darling of the tech sector or anywhere near it, it can still transform itself by adopting policies based on the innovation blueprint. Prioritizing a focus on the role of talent is key.