How can you make your company culture more innovative? Over the years, I’ve seen that certain behaviors support innovative corporate cultures. If leaders build a solid foundation upon those behaviors in the workplace, there’s a better chance that their organizations will be stronger and enduring. These three “pillar” practices create a work environment conducive to generating ideas, encouraging productive behaviors, and sparking imagination.

(I define “innovation” as something that creates incremental value by providing a new or better solution to a problem. For examples of corporations that have succeeded or failed in being innovative, see part 1 of “How to Build a Culture of Innovation.”)

Pillar #1: A question-friendly atmosphere

Curiosity is often the foundation of innovation. Truly innovative businesses create work environments that foster curiosity, and where challenging the status quo is encouraged. Unfortunately, many leaders reward employees for knowing the “right” answer, not for exploring original thinking. Some leaders may even view questioning the status quo as an affront to their own authority.

Innovative organizations, however, reward inquisitiveness and discovery. People who are curious ask more questions, especially ones that begin with “why?” They also voice their questions because they want to understand, not as a way to browbeat others into submission.

When curiosity is the norm at work—when anyone, regardless of job level, feels comfortable asking “why” questions—and when leaders are receptive to new ideas rather than sticking with the way things have always been done, then you have an environment conducive to innovation.

Pillar #2: The culture of innovative behaviors

Once there’s an environment that’s conducive to innovation, team members are able to engage in innovative behaviors: “smart” experimentation and “intelligent” failure.

A smart experiment is one that’s based on a combination of curiosity and the best information available. Smart experiments also carefully manage risks and expectations. Something that puts the core business at unnecessary risk—or that’s poorly or hastily planned—isn’t a smart experiment.

As I mentioned in my first post on this topic, innovation is inherently risky. Smart experiments often fail, and it may take multiple iterations to achieve success. When leaders punish employees for failure, they suppress innovation. Leaders who reward “intelligent” failures—those for which downside risks are well-managed and that produce valuable learning—inspire far more innovation from their teams.

Pillar #3: The practice of imagination

This is where the magic of innovation happens. In many ways, innovation is about seeing nonlinear connections. It’s about what many call “associative thinking”: when people link ideas that result in surprising and non-obvious solutions to problems.

One great example of nonlinear, associative thinking is Airbnb, the online room-letting service that’s reinventing the travel-lodging industry. Airbnd was launched in 2008 by two men in their 20s who were struggling to pay the rent on their San Francisco apartment. Their non-obvious idea was to rent out three airbeds in their living room to attendees of a conference, and to serve breakfast. Today, Airbnb is valued at over $10 billion; the company books more rooms per night than Hilton, and it’s challenging the traditional hotel industry. This month Airbnb was voted Inc. Magazine’s 2014 Company of the Year for the company’s success in not only building a disruptive business, but also challenging entrenched interests and changed many people’s lives for the better.

5 steps for leaders to take

Innovation isn’t easy. It takes time, experimentation, and patience. It requires leadership courage, and there will likely be failures. Here are the five critical steps every leader can take to get his or her team on the right track.

  1. Reward people for the right things: When leaders expect 100 percent success rates, they discourage innovation. Create the understanding that you will reward your team for “smart” experimentation and “intelligent” failure.
  2. Promote open discussion: Make it clear that you value input from all team members. A great approach can be to admit that you don’t have all the answers and look to your team for new ideas.
  3. Drive diversity: As I discussed in a prior article (Diversity + Inclusivity = Innovation), research shows that diverse teams are more innovative. Build your teams with people of different genders, racial and ethnic backgrounds, religions, and ages. Varied perspectives will drive out-of-the box thinking.
  4. Encourage broad exposure: Innovation rarely happens in a “heads-down” environment. Make time for people to attend conferences, broaden their networks, and increase their knowledge.
  5. Provide a change of scenery: One of the most productive techniques I use when facilitating brainstorming sessions is to talk to people outside the office. A new venue often allows people to look at problems from a fresh perspective, and opens them up to new ways of thinking.