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6 Steps to foster a culture of innovation

In the fast-paced world of today, incorporating innovation into a company’s modus operandi is no longer a nice-to-have but a necessity. With the rapid acceleration of technological and organizational developments in recent years, embracing change is a key means of remaining competitive. To do so requires building institutions that constantly confront the new possibilities enabled by these changes and nimbly adopt any developments that add value to their processes. It is our view that these institutions are only made possible by fostering a rich culture of innovation and continuous improvement.

This conviction is central to our operational strategy at Kin + Carta. Our mission is to build a world that works better for everyone. We believe that we can not do so unless we invest heavily in forming strong, evidenced opinions on emerging technologies and new delivery paradigms. It is through our commitment to innovation that we can guarantee that we are deploying the correct tools in the service of our vision.

Over the past 12 months, Kin + Carta has been recognized by Fast Company as one of the Best Workplaces for Innovators and I have individually been recognized by BuiltIn as a Tech Innovator. In this article, we’ll explain 6 ways we’ve fostered our award-winning culture of innovation and how you can too.

1. Create a dedicated innovation organization

Although company structures may vary deeply across time, industry, size, and other dimensions, there is value across the board in creating a single organization dedicated to innovation. Building a single hub of this sort to unite innovators across business units will inevitably create a climate of collaboration and cross-fertilization.

team of people working together

Ideators will develop their ideas in tandem, challenging one another - either directly via conversation or indirectly via example - to dream larger and bolder. If this hub can successfully cultivate a culture of collaboration and competition, it can spur network effects across the firm by encouraging other business units to partake in innovation as well.

Further value can be gained if the organization expands its scope to operating as not only a hub but as an incubator. By offering guidance and support to nascent teams and ideators, this hub can help direct innovation in the service of the company’s goals and accelerate its delivery. To do so, the organization would consolidate learnings from past and present projects and mobilize that knowledge to accelerate new projects. These learnings include, but are not limited to, answering the following questions:

  1. Delivery methodology - How should innovation projects be run with finite resources?
  2. Idea development & evaluation - How does one thoroughly and systematically articulate one’s idea? What criteria exists to evaluate it?
  3. Communication - What forms of knowledge transfer and thought leadership are suited to a project?
  4. Actualizing value - How can the results of an innovation project be put at the service of the company’s goals?

Lastly, as a more logistical matter, having a singular organization responsible for all outward communications and partnerships can reduce friction and unlock some of the benefits associated with economies of scale. Whether interfacing with other business units to discuss funding, contributing to thought-leadership platforms, or building strategic alliances with external vendors, consolidating communications into one group allows for the formation of strong relationships.

At Kin + Carta, our Labs organization plays the role of our innovation hub and incubator. This dual role is embedded in its vision: to realize the art of the possible by empowering everyone at Kin + Carta to continuously explore and relentlessly innovate. It aims to achieve this by taking a holistic approach to incubation which involves developing nascent ideas, forming robust teams around them, and equipping the teams with the delivery practices most appropriate to them.

This can best be seen when one looks at Labs’ role in FWD, Kin + Carta’s annual innovation symposium. Working hand-in-hand with marketing, the Labs team identifies trends in emerging technologies and experiences to build around them that are suitable for a conference setting. Once ideas are defined and prioritized, the Labs team rallies Kin to form project teams around each, providing structure and stewardship throughout the process. It is common for ideators and contributors to support multiple teams, creating productive links that expand their horizons and improve the projects being delivered. With Labs in charge of all external communications, innovators are free to focus on applying their craft.

By operating as our innovation hub and incubator, Labs creates tangible expressions of the art of the possible that help inform Kin + Carta’s engineering, UX, and business value perspectives on emerging technologies. Via public events, such as Community MeetUps, Podcast features, or FWD, our annual innovation symposium, Labs also seeks to educate and inspire our clients to make the world work better through innovation.

Omar presenting on a panel at the Optimizing Digital Innovation Conference

2. Democratize innovation

If one thinks of innovation as the marriage of ideation and creation, democratizing innovation entails encouraging mass grass-roots participation in each. This is fundamental to the success of the innovation organization.

If the conventional wisdom that great ideas can come from the most unlikely places holds true, then to put limits on who can ideate is to potentially turn away great ideas. As ideas are shaped by lived experiences, passions, and learnings, there is strong reason to believe that the wisdom does hold true. Therefore it's imperative to create an outlet that encourages and amplifies ideation from everyone.

Just as everyone should have a say in ideating, so too should everyone have the ability to join in building. Since innovation projects may differ substantially from traditional workstreams, it can be difficult to select potential contributors based on skillset relevance alone. Attempting to do so may exclude candidates with strong passions for the technology or who work well in rapid experimentation settings. If passion shapes performance, then one expects those passionate about a technology to perform best.

Allowing employees to volunteer into innovation projects then is a certain buoy to delivery and employee satisfaction alike.

team brainstorming in a meeting

Here at Kin + Carta, we strive to make the world work better for everyone. We believe we simply can not do so if our innovation incubator is not at the service of all Kin. It was therefore imperative for us to create and maintain structures and processes that ensure that all Kin feel empowered to innovate on their own terms. We have taken measures on both the ideation and creation sides of the equation, and both have yielded tremendous value-adds both in the culture of our workplace and in the quality and thoughtfulness of the experiences we have built.

To democratize ideation, we tore down the barriers of who can ideate and what ideation looks like. We created a robust Idea Intake Process that guides ideators through the process of imagining and elaborating their visions, whatever their starting point. The process revolves around a Lean Concept Canvas (LCC) that marries the brainstorming feel of whiteboarding with the analytic insight of a product evaluation to holistically define a project; it is constantly evolving based on results of User Research. Members of the Labs Ops team guide ideators in populating their LCCs, thereby making it accessible to new hires and seasoned employees alike.

To democratize creation, the Labs Ops team socializes all innovation projects widely across the company and helps onboard aspiring contributors onto these projects. Since most Kin voluntarily contribute to Labs projects after-hours without any formal allocation, maintaining a robust onboarding/offboarding process with strong conventions of communication, documentation, and workstream planning is crucial to a project’s success; the Labs Ops team provides coaching to ensure that these are in line with best practices.

The challenge still remained to remedy racial, gendered, and age-based inequalities in access to innovation opportunities. Through an active commitment to diversity and the belief that it builds greater products, the Labs team has sought to ensure inclusivity not only in our delivery process but in the technology we build as well. This is illustrated by profiling two computer vision projects incubated by Labs.

The Machine Learning models learned on both workstreams exhibited biases favoring lighter skin tones. It was only because of the diversity of the teams that these projects were able to overcome these limitations. These two projects directly contributed to creating the data ethics community within Kin + Carta which continues to discuss and establish best practices and thought leadership around this very important topic. In other words, it was only by fostering a culture of inclusivity and mass-participation in our innovation work streams that we were able to build experiences that make the world work better for everyone.

3. Invest in the organization

Creating an open innovation hub is a fantastic signal to the workforce of the intent to innovate, but further investment is necessary. While aspiring innovators may be attracted to projects by their passions alone, an organization that is sustainable, robust, and efficient, requires more mobilizing force than only emotions; it needs a compelling incentivization structure and a dedicated core team that steadies the ship while navigating turbulent waters. Both of these require investment, in the forms of time, energy, space, and finances.

An hourglass next to a computer

Although incentivization structures differ greatly across organizations, all successful ones are rooted in their employees’ values, which may include things like accruing overtime, gaining visibility, or learning a new skill. Addressing these directly can make all the difference in the project’s outcome. For example, providing contributors with some time-allocation to work on a project or with some budget to use for training can accelerate delivery. Investing in team-morale does the same, particularly on long and arduous projects. Of course, operational expenditures, such as cloud-services and software, and physical/virtual spaces for collaboration must also be provided; these comprise another form of investment. There are many more, but the point is clear. Innovation can be a buoy for culture, employee satisfaction, business metrics, and more, but it requires investment to do so.

Within Labs’ rich history at Kin + Carta, we’ve consistently strived to find creative ways to invest in innovation. Our tactics have had to be responsive and adapt to different business-climates, working habits, and real-world problems. Rather than issue a top-down one size fits all solution, we’ve had great success by applying our customer experience-driven development framework (CXDD), consultant mindsets and tackling this ground-up via user research and group ideation. Teams are empowered to come up with creative ways to boost their morale.

Consider, for example, the FWDCoin project. As the conference date drew closer and the project grew more complex, the team suggested a bold idea. They wanted to fly the key contributor from Buenos Aires to Chicago to work alongside the Tech Lead and Product Owner. We obliged. This investment injected the team with an energy and a purpose that rallied us to a successful release, shattering our OKRs. The experience raised $5000 for charities over the FWD event and incentivized 830 moments of feedback.

Contrast that with the case of Office World. The Office World project arose as part of the Kinnect Challenge. It revolved around building a virtual version of the office to allow Kin to inhabit a common space and interact in new ways while working remotely. When asked how they wish to be supported, the team responded that they’d like to use their training days to organize a hackathon and for some budget to reinstate an office-tradition: Falafel Fridays. Both of these helped lift the team to its successful conclusion.

Lastly, it is worth noting that visibility is a crucial factor motivating employees as they navigate their firms. Feeling seen by one’s peers and leadership goes a long way in incentivizing one to perform as best as they can. We’ve witnessed this first hand at Labs and have made it a key priority to socialize the efforts and achievements of all of our innovators whenever possible. Members of our leadership teams frequently visit working-sessions or hackathons and send supportive messages on Slack. I will personally never forget when Marissa Mann, our former Chief Operating Officer, and Henry Oyuela, our then VP of Engineering, dropped in on us during a Saturday working-session with a giant bag of fortune cookies. It was such a monumental experience for me to white-board the architecture of our project’s smart-contract ecosystem alongside Henry, and it had a lasting impact on our project’s success.

4. Prioritize the journey alongside the destination

As a firm begins to invest in innovation, it is crucial to recognize that the value lies not only in the output that a project produces but throughout the entirety of its delivery processes. This value manifests itself in many ways; below we will focus on two: value accrued to people and improvements to processes; in other words, building up collaborators and the fluidity of their collaboration. Focusing only on the final product risks underestimating the worth of innovation and missing an opportunity to optimize the value generated through the delivery cycle itself.

KinCoin team

For those passionate about exploring the future of technology, an innovation organization provides an outlet for them to channel their own interests into their workplace. Being able to harness this passion in the service of the company’s broader goals is a buoy to both the employee’s satisfaction levels and the company’s bottom line. Moreover, the skill sets and problem solving mentality acquired when working with new technologies inflect even non-innovation workstreams, thus improving the quality of a contributor’s work as a whole. The same holds for any softer skills developed amongst peers, such as project ownership and functional leadership. As a final note, by virtue of being voluntary, these projects attract and help foster connections among like-minded coworkers who otherwise may not have ever crossed paths.

Having discussed the value on the level of the individual, we’ll turn to the value gained in fine tuning processes. Most often, innovation draws on a skillset that differs substantially from the one used day to day. The foundations of innovation projects are rapid experimentation, prototyping, and nimbly iterating. These are often done in environments with incomplete information and high levels of uncertainty requiring contributors to suspend disbelief and at times operate autonomously with a North Star in sight but no clear roadmap to get there. Learning how to issue structural and process-based adjustments to steady the ship in such turbulent settings is an immense value-add of innovation projects.

Kin + Carta Labs subscribes entirely to this view of innovation as a never-ending journey; as the relentless pursuit of that which lies beyond the horizon. While we invest great care in ensuring that we have a set of destinations charted, we equally prioritize the learning and collaboration that gets us there. To this end, all of our Labs projects are safe spaces that encourage personal growth, connections, and fulfillment. Surrounded by supportive peers, Kin are able to take risks and fail knowing that their courageous efforts at self-improvement are seen and appreciated.

I myself took advantage of this as a first year analyst when I launched KinCoin and served as its Technical Lead and Architect. My mistakes along the way were invaluable lessons that helped accelerate my career and tell my story. I’m not unique in this though. Every Tech Lead and Architect that followed me on the KinCoin project was experiencing that role for the first time and went on to play that role to great success on a client project. The same holds true for the majority of our experiences.


Cenital view of a road in the forest

The courage to grow and try new things is not restricted to project leadership either. Nearly all Kin have acquired new skill sets on these projects. Oftentimes, it is within one’s own function: scrum masters and product strategists implement novel delivery methodologies; developers learn new tools; UX designers experiment with new paradigms; etc… But other times, it stands defiantly outside of it: on Kinge, a QA analyst tested a transition to UXD and UXR; on Office World, a Talent Acquisition Specialist turned video-game soundtrack composer; and on KinCoin, a developer and a UX designer turned macroeconomic modellers. Those are in addition to the more commonplace changes of engineers turning strategists, strategists adopting scrum responsibilities, and UX designers taking on UX research.

The point is simple. There is value in the journey - reach out and grab it.

5. Capitalize on outputs

Once the innovation organization is up and running, it should be delivering a steady stream of experiment outputs. Each of these results will either provide or refute the experiment hypothesis and contribute to a growing knowledge base of emerging technology. Just as engineering is the application of the knowledge base of science, so too is innovation the application of this knowledge base in the service of making the world work better. This is a crucial point to understand. Innovation is not only about research but also application; innovation projects must strive to pair theory and practice.

To enable this, experiment outputs must be interpreted by a diverse group of specialists who are tasked with identifying ways to incorporate the results in their own domains of expertise. These specialists should span functions and disciplines, industries and business-units, and lived experiences and soft skill sets. Ideally, they should be brought together in shared brainstorming sessions to develop each other’s ideas and identify synergies. It is vital for them to suspend disbelief in thinking boldly and creatively, considering a wide-range of scenarios and time-windows. After all, there is no value realized in proving a formula if there is no reason to apply it.

Teammate leading a meeting using colored post its

Since experiment outputs can differ substantially and lend themselves to a wide array of uses, it is helpful to apply some structure to this brainstorming. One useful starting point is in pondering the implications of an experiment’s results within the company and beyond it, respectively. The former requires assessing all potential plug-ins of the experiment’s outputs across the firm’s operations - existing or newly imagined. The latter involves exploring all possibilities of radiating the learnings outwards outside of the company in line with the company’s broader objectives.

To have internal value, a successful experiment may either illustrate how a number of existing artifacts or processes can be improved or provide a brand new set of them to adopt altogether. Contrast, for example, a technologically-enabled improvement to a workflow with a new practice forming out of nothing, in response to newly enabled possibilities. Regardless of which of these two types of value-adds the experiment provides, for its value to be actualized, the experiment requires nimble and responsive institutions that proactively adapt to change. It is in this environment that intrapreneurs truly shine. The network effect should be apparent: a culture of innovation and a culture of continuous improvement mutually reinforce one another.

In addition to this internal boost, there is very likely to be potential external value that should also be realized. By definition, innovation is the exploration of new and uncharted waters. The process of innovating then puts one on the technological vanguard with firm grounds for thought-leadership. Depending on the firm, this might be instrumentalized to support talent acquisition, drive demand generation, bolster profitability, or much more.

How do we do this in K+C?

By educating. The purpose of FWD is to provide our clients a feel of what’s coming next. It intends to educate our clients broadly. So too does the change report and our community events, such as MeetUps and more. So, here the idea is education and thought leadership. It leads to the social good of a more aware and technically savvy public. It also leads to business development and better technical outcomes for our clients. Also, it leads to talent acquisition.

By building. Labs has long been a breeding ground for service line offerings. Emerging technology that is proved out in Labs is taken to market. Our various projects leveraging IOT, Computer Vision, NLP, Blockchain, and almost every conceivable combination of them have been morphed into a set of functioning service lines. They’ve led to more revenue and stronger partnerships.

By adopting. Other projects which promise internal cultural value within K+C, such as KinCoin, DigitalKin, and the three projects of the Kinnect Challenge, are nurtured until their releases at which point they are adopted either on a grassroots or organizational level. KinCoin for example has hit >30k transactions involving 5,000 unique pairs of people. Grassroots efforts on the app have raised money for charities, incentivized participation in internal initiatives, and built a rich camaraderie within K+C. Office World, although not yet released, has been used by Kin for happy hours on client projects and informal gatherings alike. DigitalKin offers a data-driven tool for casting and mentorship. Simply put, examples abound.

Four employees sitting on a panel, with one employee (Omar) speaking into a microphone
Omar on a panel with Kin, presenting KinCoin at an after-hours meet up in our Chicago office

6. Put your innovators on a pedestal

Celebrating one’s innovators and their accomplishments is essential in evolving a discrete set of processes into a cohesive and organic culture. For however elusive culture is to definition, it is widely accepted that it encompasses celebration. What and how a group celebrates are rightly understood to be central pillars of their culture. Group celebration helps reinforce a sense of community and a set of collective values, while also encouraging members to strive towards these values so that they may also be celebrated. In this light, parading innovation projects and applauding their contributors seems a sure way to instill innovation as a value of the workplace culture.

Of course, the practice of celebration itself is just as important as the fact of celebration; the more meaningful the celebration is to the group’s members, the deeper their commitments will be to the group’s values. Hints for what forms the celebration should take can be found in what motivates people to innovate in the first place. These will vary tremendously across individual contributors in a company over time, so it is important to identify these in conversation with the innovators themselves and reassess regularly. One useful framework is to group these motivational factors into buckets:

  1. the technological - I want to get hands on experience with the latest technology
  2. the processual - I want to improve the way we work
  3. the personal - I want visibility or camaraderie
Three people giving a round of applause to another teammate

Understanding your innovators’ motivational economy must be the first step in ensuring meaningful celebrations, so it must be done with deliberate intent. At Kin + Carta, we attempt to do this by repeatedly engaging our contributors in honest conversations about their goals. Once the Labs team makes clear that the journey is just as important as the destination, our Kin come to understand that their candor is appreciated and share their hopes for what this journey may entail. As time progresses, the Labs Ops team schedules one-on-one touch-points with individuals and group-sessions with teams to assess team morale, project health, and more. It is in this way that we come to understand our Kin’s aspirations so that we may channel them throughout our journey and build our celebrations around them.

Before elaborating on how we respond to individual value-systems, it’s important to introduce one fundamental point. The centrality that we give innovation in our mission and values as a company manifests itself in the layout of our offices. This is especially true for our Chicago office where Labs experiences line the walls like a Hall of Fame. As soon as visitors enter the space, they are greeted by our Pepper robot. To one side they see a demo of our Blockchain Gardens experience; to the other, they can interact with BrAINwave. All the while, their movements, noises, and temperatures are tracked and portrayed on a dashboard by our Pulse IOT app. Our offices can be read as spatial celebrations of our instinct to innovate.

In addition to having their work paraded in the primary space they inhabit with their colleagues, our Kin are recognized internally and externally. Innovators are often shouted-out at weekly meetings, nominated for our Kin + Carta Awesomeness Awards, and recipients of messages of congratulations and support from their coworkers or leadership. Our Kinnect Challenge is an illustrative example. Following months of fantastic work, innovators were personally recognized by name during our company’s quarterly meeting, where they were collectively awarded a Carty, a prize dedicated for those who best exemplify Kin + Carta’s values. The combination of grassroots and hierarchical visibility helps innovators build lasting relationships in the company.

In addition to recognition, innovators are encouraged to pursue their own brands of thought-leadership. Whether they would like to write blog-posts, speak at conferences, host meetups, or run demo tours, innovators are supported in doing so by Labs and other groups in Kin + Carta. For example, our KinCoin team ran a series of MeetUps in Chicago, in Buenos Aires, and remotely to explain how Blockchain could be used to foster a culture of gratitude and recognition.

What and how a group celebrates are key aspects to the culture they share. Cultivating the practice of celebration around what drives individuals is the surest way of making celebrations meaningful and morphing a set of processes into a holistic culture.


Cultivating a culture around an ideal is no trivial task. In the case of innovation, it is no different. One can create infrastructure to encourage and empower innovation but it would be for nothing unless it is internalized as a value by the company’s employees. Therefore any process of cultural transformation needs to be done with constant dialog and transparent feedback from the employees it is meant to be serving. It is only once employees subscribe to a shared value system that infrastructure and processes become cultural norms. The 6 steps laid out in this paper attempt to address both sides of this equation by appealing to the structural and environmental changes that help foster a culture of innovation.

As the resurgence of COVID, courtesy of the Omnicron strain, reveals – we are not in usual times. Indeed with the rate of technological disruption across all industries accelerating, it’s clear that the only constant we can hold onto is change. Against this backdrop, innovation is more important than ever.

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