Every company wants to be innovative, but few approach it correctly. Innovation is about so much more than dress codes and ping pong tables: it’s about discovery. Innovation requires a path that demands fearlessness, because to be truly innovative, an organization must be willing to move forward without always having a defined roadmap or specific requirements, and be ready to pivot and move – quickly – when something clicks. Companies who embrace innovation wholeheartedly accept risk and embrace failure, because both are as critical to the process as creativity, grit and a little luck.

It’s more than OK to fail – it’s essential

Innovative companies recognize that there’s a quality that permeates all aspects of their business, going far beyond technology and effecting process, strategy, and even marketing. They realize these investments are critical if they’re going to stay ahead of their competitors. With regard to marketing, these were the companies dipping into social media 12 years ago, and buying mobile media in 2007. They recognize that these investments may not always be fruitful, but that’s the hallmark of one of their key traits: Innovative companies are not afraid of failure.

Companies that embrace innovation also embrace risk. Their mindset and willingness to welcome change (and failure) stands in stark contrast to legacy organizations that are tied to their profit and loss reports. A monolithic Fortune 500 may not be willing to risk $1 million on a single business unit’s market experimentation. An innovative company knows that financial risk is part of positive growth and change.

Get comfortable being uncomfortable

That risk-taking becomes part of the culture of the business. Truly innovative companies know that it takes more than free snacks and a pool table to foster change and creative thinking, and to build a culture of innovation. Innovation starts with management, then radiates across the organization. The CEO and everyone in the C-suite needs to buy in. Managers and staff understand that the organization needs to be fluid. Worker bees who need a predictable set of tasks every day need not apply here: creative thinkers, agents of change, and go-getters who are comfortable pushing their limits and getting uncomfortable – that’s a team that can innovate.

Everyone needs to be willing invest time, budget and resources into new areas – even before they’re fully vetted. Decision makers must be comfortable taking risks regardless of whether they’re 100 percent sure what the market opportunities are, and even if there isn’t a full business plan in place. To some, that might sound a little counter-intuitive, but business today moves at a rapid pace. Companies that want to move forward and stay ahead can’t afford to wait six months for strategic analyses, full business requirements and P&Ls. They’ll just fall behind.

Speed is key

The old-school waterfall process could be deadly today. Even with all the preparation and analysis in the world, mistakes can still be made. Only now, they’ll still be mistakes, but they’ll be embarrassingly late-to-market mistakes. Of course there has to be some preparation and some planning, but there has be to some gut instinct involved, too. Test ideas, determine whether or not they’re valuable. Test a lot of ideas.

Decide how to define success. Organizations embarking on a path to innovation may not always know what success is or how to measure it in the early days – and that’s actually OK. Those models will need to be built, as will the processes to support them. Things will have to get a little formalized around testing and finding the financial and business opportunities. It’s that entrepreneurial mantra of “Ready, Fire, Aim.” Innovation requires iteration and optimization: fire, aim…fire, aim…fire, aim…but keep moving.

Organizations that innovate successfully are able to find a balance between the strategic and tactical planners versus the creative innovators. The core business still needs to be managed, coupled with the need to invest time, resources and money into the more creative initiatives. It may be harder to bring about changes impacting your business by 75 percent than it is to impact your business by 5 percent, but which is more valuable and more interesting? The answer is you can’t ignore either. If all you do is grow your business 5 percent every year, your run will be limited (how long will be dependent on the size of your business), but you must continue to maintain your core business, while continuing to invest in strategic change.

The key takeaway here is for companies to be innovative, they need to take risks. They don’t have to risk everything, but they need to be willing to do more than just enhance a few features. There has to be recognition that things will fail, but a willingness to invest in those tests, embrace failure and learn from it. But there also has to be a balance between steady growth and strategic growth. Risk is critical, yes, but it’s not necessary or even smart to risk everything. Any company can be innovative as long as they take an open-minded and solution-focused approach, and are willing to keep at it.