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Understanding the coming change is stimulating renewed discussion among executives on how to establish a culture that drives sustainable innovation to build value in lean times.

Yet, executive commitment to an innovation culture does not necessarily translate into high performance execution of the innovation agenda. Surveys from leading consultancies and analyst firms also confirm that most companies are lacking in leadership or tools to innovate successfully and consistently.

There is often a gap between executive intent and execution—a gap that can be easily avoided. For a sustainable innovation culture to thrive, the organization must understand two basic principles.

First principle: It starts at the top

The most common reason cited for why innovation workers feel their organizations fail to have an innovation culture is a perceived lack of management commitment. Organizational culture is created from the top down. In order to create a culture that supports repeatable innovation success, management has to make its commitment to innovation clear and unambiguous.

Here are several ways managers can make their commitment to innovation palpable while reinforcing it every day.

Invest in your people— You cannot expect your workforce to deliver to its potential if they are not equipped to do so. Develop your internal organization’s innovation capabilities by providing innovation best practice training. Companies like Hewlett Packard, Samsung, and Dow have invested in training programs to help disseminate innovation expertise throughout the enterprise.

Reward the behavior you want— Make sure you publicly reward those who distinguish themselves as avatars of the innovation culture you are trying to create. Leggett & Platt has elevated the visibility of innovation success through their annual technology forum where they also spotlight the winner of the prestigious J. P. Leggett Innovators Award, while seeing Delphi’s Inventors Wall of Fame, you can’t help but feel the depth of the company’s commitment to its innovation contributors.

Invest in infrastructure to support sustainable innovation—Research firm IDC estimates worldwide technology spending will slow in 2008. Yet, reports by leading consultancy firms indicate that investment in innovation will grow. Hence it is doubly important for companies to invest in the right technology and tools to support their innovation best practices. The easier you make it for workers to adopt the disciplines of repeatable innovation, the greater your return on innovation.

An important part of the innovation infrastructure is the framework to leverage knowledge— both the knowledge within your organization and that which is external to the enterprise. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that a traditional knowledge management initiative will meet the specialized needs of your innovation workers. They should be freed from fruitless searching for the concept needle in an information haystack. Designers, engineers, and scientists need high precision concept retrieval that’s tightly integrated with their innovation practices.

Give innovation workers visibility to corporate objectives— Often investment is wasted on ideas that are doomed from the start because they are not aligned with the needs of the company. Innovation workers must be able to integrate corporate strategy into their evaluation of possible innovation paths. Design to meet and exceed the needs of your customers and that of the company.

Promote the value of innovation— Everybody likes to know that their efforts have made a difference. Companies such as Northrop Grumman continuously communicate the value delivered to clients and to the company by innovation successes. This communication not only inspires employees and makes them feel proud of their accomplishments, but also motivates them by making it clear that the company values results.

Practice innovation in everything— What makes Tiger Woods the best? Practice. Practice makes perfect, permanent and predictable. To build a truly sustainable innovation culture, workers must practice innovation in everything they do. Constantly employing innovation best practices for small challenges will prepare them to tackle the big issues. For managers, this means they must support innovation workers in this activity and not subtly discourage the development of innovation competence by pushing employees to short circuit the solution process. Show your commitment to doing things right the first time.

Second principle: It starts at the top

It really is that simple. Management has the power to set the tone and drive the culture. Managers who avoid taking responsibility for driving the innovation culture by using the “adoption must be a grass-roots thing” crutch, will always be met with failure and left wondering why they can’t achieve their repeatable innovation goals. Culture begins and ends at the top. To create a value-driving, sustainable innovation culture, you need only make it so.

James Todhunter is chief technology officer at Invention Machine, a leading innovation software company. In his blog Innovating to Win, Todhunter regularly offers insights and observations on building high-performance teams that can drive sustainable innovation across organizations.