Innovation is a popular word today, with plenty of books supporting it. Most pundits promote big innovation programs with innovation departments and innovation plans. But unless you happen to have hired the next Nikola Tesla, this is hardly a sustainable strategy. 

See Also: Manufacturing Innovation & Product Development Strategy

Innovation comes from every corner of the organization, from the receptionist to the salesperson. There are the Teslas out there who are inherently innovative, but companies are not inherently innovative. Innovation as a company trait can be developed through culture and skill building. There are core behaviors and skills that when combined form an innovative company. 

1. Empathy for the customer.

The best innovations come when they start from a customer perspective. You must put yourself in the customers' shoes, and have empathy for their situation and perspective. Amazon is often a good example because their entire culture is based on it. They are now working on same-day delivery -- not next-day delivery, but same-day. It solves the problem of why people need to "run out" and get something, because it just can't wait for next day. 

2. Seeing and solving problems.

Just Born, the iconic maker of Peeps and Mike & Ike, has a foundation of solving problems. In 1953 they bought a company that made marshmallow chick and bunny treats with dozens of women squeezing them out by hand, which was very difficult work. Bob Born, trained as a physicist and engineer, figured out how to automate this difficult process. Today the company can "hatch" 5 million Peeps in a single day. 

Most people would not have seen a problem. They would have just seen a difficult process and the solution would be to hire strong hands capable of squeezing the marshmallow bags. But a problem solver sees the problem inherent to a situation and sets about a deliberate process to resolve it. It's a decision to be a problem solver, and a skill to do it successfully. 

3. Learn by experimenting.

Innovation ultimately requires doing things in new ways. Inherent to that is that you don't know for sure if they're going to work or not. Innovative companies find ways to experiment with two critical traits. First, they find the cheapest and quickest way to test something. Learn from either success or failure fast and cheap. Don't spend six more hours debating it; instead, find a way to test an idea and learn a whole lot more. 

Second, experimenters are not beholden to their ideas. If they just aren't going to work, they are willing to abandon them and move on to something else. There is no sense of loss over the path chosen, just new opportunities.