The last 18-plus months have seen unprecedented innovation and transformative initiatives from CIOs and business technology teams, spurred in part by the public health crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure the needs of their employees and end users are met. For many, that meant a rapid pivot to remote work and digitizing their interactions with customers and partners.

Yet, many CIOs don’t see any sign of letting off their gas pedals.

According to the 2021 Gartner CIO Agenda survey, of the CIOs who responded and which Gartner refers to as “top performers,” about two-thirds have increased digital innovation funding as a result of the pandemic. The survey also found 60% of enterprise respondents plan to increase their investments in cybersecurity, business intelligence and data analytics (58%) and cloud services and solutions (53%).

Of course, those are the technological tools that drive innovation; however, it’s the people within the organization who develop innovative ideas and bring them to reality.

When asked what innovation in a business context is, nearly all of the c-levels we asked agreed that it’s the process to think up new processes or products that will either improve the business in some way or better serve customers. But organizations that successfully innovate know it’s more than just a “process”—there also must be an innovative culture that successfully drives that process. And that culture starts with effective communication with teams and customers.

Innovation Starts With Communication

Communicating effectively includes not simply hearing but actively listening with understanding and responsiveness. “Empathy is arguably the most important factor in building a culture of innovation because it sets the tone for everything. Phenomenal products, services and processes only exist when organizations are able to empathize with their team and end customers,” says Akshay Bhargava, chief product officer at 1Password. “A culture that enables innovation embraces customer empathy, deeply understanding the customer challenges and only then tries to find solutions.”

That understanding and empathy of customer and organizational needs begins with communication. “The most effective method to encouraging an innovative culture is communication,” says Evan Davies, managing director at software startup Intuitix. “People are often cynical about innovation because they’re unaware of the benefits. Accurately communicating the benefits of innovation that resonate with the intended audience makes it much easier to get buy-in, which is essential to fostering an innovation culture.”

Such communication needs space for staff to speak freely about their ideas. “I’ve found that holding roundtable meetings is a great way for employees to disclose their honest attitudes and suggestions for improving their workplace culture, without feeling pressure from executives. This can yield great suggestions which you can turn into initiatives and inspire greater enthusiasm for collaboration,” says Sagi Gidali, co-founder and chief product officer at cloud and network security firm Perimeter 81.

“It usually starts at the meeting room, where team members can be encouraged to speak up and offer opinions and solutions even if they aren’t 100% sure they are correct,” says Dave Hecker, CTO, West Coast at iTechArt Group. “This allows employees to ‘practice’ experiencing a risk-taking mentality and hopefully be rewarded for it. Most people love sharing their ideas, and if you make them feel protected, they’ll be increasingly willing to share those ideas, hopefully leading eventually to an innovative, moonshot idea that changes everything.”

Align Innovation Efforts With Strategic Objectives

“CIOs set the tone from the top and they need to set a clear, compelling vision of the future and a focused strategy to move forward with intent,” adds Talal Butt, VP of IT, enterprise transformation and architecture at Rockwell Automation.

George Young, global managing director at Kalypso, also adds that establishing such a vision is central to success, by ensuring whatever employees are trying to achieve serves the organizations’ strategic objectives. Those objectives can be the need to develop new products, pivot a business model or improve employee workflow. Whatever the organization needs, the organization’s innovation efforts need to be aligned.

Mark Porter, CTO at MongoDB, notes the business alignment can also help to avert unproductive conflicts. “Leaders and developers need to believe they are working together toward the same goal. An oppositional relationship takes developers out of flow, and you can lose a whole day of productivity from a single negative interaction,” he says.

Permit Fast Failure

“The most important thing CIOs can do to encourage a culture of innovation is to allow employees to fail fast,” says Ram Chakravarti, CTO at BMC Software. “By letting employees experiment on ideas and making it clear that it is okay to fail at first, we encourage employees to use those failings as learning opportunities. Then, we as a company push the envelope toward the desired positive future state.”

1Password’s Bhargava agrees: “Focus on rapidly experimenting ideas and let teams know that failing is part of the innovation journey. Encourage them to fail fast and move on in the search to uncover the winning ideas.”

Walid Negm, chief research and innovation officer at Capgemini Engineering, says it’s important that staff are able to find their own innovation journey, even going as far as making ‘the freedom to explore’ a performance objective for managers. “If managers are encouraging employees to find interest areas and dive deeper into them, people will be taking on projects that they not only find interesting but that are also advancing the organization,” Negm says.

Embrace Continuous Learning

The quality of innovative ideas in an organization will only be as good as its people. Mindy Ferguson, managing vice president, technology, at Capital One, believes continuously driving innovation requires that CIOs also focus on building a culture of continued learning and development. “The days of four years of school and you’re done are in the past. As companies evolve their technology stack and integrate new technologies into their products and businesses, leaders should train and reskill employees to remain on the bleeding edge of technology,” she says.

Ferguson cites as an example Tech College, a learning hub Capital One kicked off in 2017 with the goal of training all of the company’s associates in technology-strategic areas including software engineering, mobile, machine learning/artificial intelligence, cloud computing and data.

Kalypso’s Young believes a keen focus on the training and well-being of staff is crucial for success. “To enable a culture of innovation, organizations must value and invest in their employees,” he says. ”Companies should put in place leaders with the right perspective and approach who recognize the value of career development, training programs, work/life balance and even a higher-order sense of belonging. Investing in human capital, committing to people and being recognized as a place where people want to work will be a real differentiator when it comes to enabling a culture of innovation.”