building blocks of innovation

Advance or go extinct – how the building blocks of innovation can drive organizational change

7 intentional steps to architecting an organizationwide culture of innovation

Building an innovation infrastructure does not need to be complex or daunting. Most often, it is achieved through disciplined execution of the basics. At Baker Tilly, we view innovation as an investment in our people; to unlock the creativity of our entire organization by instilling the belief that everyone can be an innovator. As we strive to evolve as a modern organization, harnessing the power of our people equips us with the foresight to tackle the mounting challenges of rapidly evolving technology, economic shifts and the fight for talent attraction. In pursuit of this mission, our approach is nothing novel to the professional services or corporate world, rather, it is a commitment to simple and strategic core beliefs which serve as the foundation for building a culture of innovation.

How to build an innovation foundation

Innovation has many different forms, speeds and sizes, from incremental improvements to radical breakthroughs, and can occur in a wide range of contexts at the societal, organizational or individual level. When you see or hear the word innovation, what comes to mind? You likely think of transcendent technological advancements that have altered the way we live, like the internet or the mobile phone. Sometimes you may think of economy-evolving processes like Ford’s assembly line.

Innovation can also take place on a smaller or more incremental scale and can contribute just as significantly to the efficiency with which you work and what you can offer your constituents. Embarking on innovation at a smaller scale can be less intimidating, welcoming more people into the process. This is particularly pertinent with so many new technologies at our disposal and access to these tools can make innovating exponentially more powerful. More participants exploring their ideas and leveraging evolving technologies can bring unlimited innovation potential to your organization. Organizational culture is driven by leadership, and leaders have the responsibility to treat innovation not as an activity in which to participate periodically, but rather as a meaningful part of each team member’s day.

Innovation is no longer optional – it's essential. These seven simple and intentional steps are the basics that any organization can implement to stay relevant and ahead of the changing business landscape. Let’s go there.

Effective innovation can be difficult because it requires courage – to reflect, to assess, to invest – in being the forward-thinking organization you want to be. Push yourself to evaluate your organization’s current practices and those of your industry to challenge norms and set new standards. Are there things you do because it’s just the way you’ve always done them? Is the industry slow to adopt certain technologies? What could you do differently to set yourself apart from the competition?

Finding answers to these questions requires exploration, which can only take place with proper investment and support. Patience and funding go a long way in communicating a message to your people that exploration and ideation are valued as a critical success factor for your organization’s growth.

The takeaway: Leadership must be bold in its stance on innovation. Look at your organization and the competition, and make funding innovation a financial priority, the same as any other facet of your organization.

Not all ideas become initiatives, and not all initiatives grow to be successful. Your organization should embrace this and feel comfortable knowing there is always something to be learned, even if an idea doesn’t manifest to its initial potential. This requires a shift in mindset by leadership, which flows through the rest of the team member base.

“If you’re going to create a culture of innovation, you have to make it OK to fail,” Kristen Russell, Baker Tilly’s managing director of Innovation & Solutions, said.

It’s hard to resist viewing projects that fall short as failures, but failure only occurs if you don’t take the opportunity to gather lessons learned and consider how what you’ve built can contribute to innovation in another way. Some recognized innovations took place unintendedly because of a “failure.” Let’s look at the Post-it® Note: Dr. Spencer Silver, a scientist for 3M, set out to make an incredibly strong, tough adhesive. Yet in his unsuccessful experimentation, he created an adhesive that only lightly stuck to other objects. This adhesive didn’t have an immediate practical use until another 3M scientist, Art Fry, was frustrated with his paper placeholders falling out of his hymnal at choir practice. More than 40 years later, Post-it® Notes remain one of the simplest, most-cherished inventions.

Without the convergence of the freedom to explore within the 3M culture, Dr. Silver’s realization of what he had created and Fry’s idea for application, this small but unimaginably impactful innovation would never have changed the way we take notes, mark pages and communicate with others.

The takeaway: Take time to assess what you’ve accomplished along the way because you never know how a perceived failure can be turned into a new innovation. It’s important to bring together a diverse stakeholder group with multiple perspectives to evaluate what you’ve accomplished and where to go next.

Establishing a culture of innovation will come with several possible challenges, one of them being cost. Justifying project funding and opportunity costs of time committed to exploration can be difficult during periods when businesses financially lean on discretionary dollars. It can be hard to prioritize innovation when you’re simply trying to get by now. Find funding at the margins and get creative with low-cost ways to foster ideation among your people but continue to support a culture of innovation in the best way possible for your organization. This culturally keeps it a priority and you will continue to receive those potential game-changing ideas from your people because they know they will be valued.

Another barrier is the tendency to want to see the fruits of your labor now versus a long-term investment or project that could take years to come to fruition. Some initiatives need time, and you can’t dictate when a trend may come along that presents an opportunity for capitalization. So, trust your leadership team and the investments in innovation you’ve made. If you believe in the ideas and put forth the necessary funding and support, results will come.

The takeaway: Innovation is hard and requires commitment. Establishing a culture of innovation will give your commitment fortitude and make investment worth it when successful results are reached.

“The ability to anticipate the future provides the biggest competitive advantage,” Daniel Burrus, a leading futurist, strategic advisor and disruptive innovation expert, said.

Burrus emphasizes intentionally seeking to understand what he calls hard trends and soft trends. A hard trend can be summarized as a predictable certainty based on events or demographic shifts, whereas a soft trend is more of a projection that may happen based on creations or consumer tastes at the time. Embrace this and continue to build a mentality of exploration into your culture for everyone to be proactively listening, in addition to the dedicated resources committed to gathering intelligence on market forces impacting your firm and clients served.

The takeaway: Establish good listening habits now and you’ll no longer be reactive to forces around you, but anticipatory of what your organization and constituents need.

A 2022 Microsoft survey of 20,000 people cited 76% of employees would stay at their company longer if there were more opportunities for learning and development. The punchline: invest in your people. Participation in innovation activities can fulfill that desire for development opportunities and make the career experience more dynamic, exciting and rewarding.

A growing millennial and Gen Z workforce will shape the future of organizations. With this in mind, Baker Tilly established a hands-on leadership program, Innovation Ignite, to empower early-career professionals to build innovation acumen as part of their skill development. Ultimately, we aim to infuse our young professionals with an “anyone can be an innovator” mentality as part of our pledge to provide a unique career experience for all team members. They, in turn, will utilize this innovative mindset as they deliver outstanding personalized value to our clients and shape the innovative direction of the firm.

The takeaway: Prepare for what your organization needs to look like in the future and make sure your people want to be a part of that future.

“The creativity of our people – all 6,500 team members – is fueling our innovation and leading the way in a world of disruption, opportunity and change,” Ethan Bach, managing principal of Strategy & Innovation at Baker Tilly, said.

Each member of your organization can contribute to innovation, but they need a clear channel to do so. For example, Baker Tilly invested in a firmwide platform for all employees to submit their ideas on how the firm can better serve their clients and their professionals. The goal is to create an environment in which team members read, hear or see something in their work or personal lives that sparks an idea, and therefore provide a platform to share that idea with their peers and leaders.

Additionally, it is critical to surround your idea intake with a disciplined structure to evaluate ideas for their merit and opportunity. This enables prioritization and progression of ideas and facilitates clear communication with your team members on the submitted ideas.

The takeaway: Your people are often closest to the challenges of your constituents and are most impacted by internal workplace culture. Provide an avenue to hear how your organization can improve and a process to evaluate their ideas.

Ask these questions of yourself and your organization:

  • Has your organization integrated innovation into its cultural experience?  
  • What are you and your organization doing to understand the hard and soft trends that will affect your future and that of your constituents?  
  • Do team members at your organization feel comfortable suggesting new ideas and are they given meaningful consideration by leadership?

Are you ready to innovate?

“The future is not an upgrade on the familiar, it is a world built by the bold,” Mike Walsh advises. Mike is a notable futurist, speaker and author of The Algorithmic Leader, and the CEO of Tomorrow, a global consultancy of designing companies for the 21st century.

Anything and anyone can be a spark for innovation. Embracing innovation today is an investment in the future of your organization, but you don’t have to have it all figured out. Prioritizing innovation is not committing to a mission to come up with the next Apple or Uber. It is the freedom to explore and commit to an intentional culture shift so you and your organization can stand out in an ever-evolving world.

Team members work together on technology innovation

Innovation culture

Keeping a pulse on current and emerging trends helps us navigate the potential impacts and opportunities for our clients and our firm.

About Us Baker Tilly

Go there with us.

We are a top ten advisory tax and assurance firm dedicated to uncovering new opportunities with our clients and building new blueprints for success. We are creating the advisory CPA firm of the future, today.

Kristen Russell
Managing Director

Related sections

Man analyzes code on phone to that on the computer
Next up

Technology and its implications on class action