“Planting the seeds of change,” is an often repeated metaphor that aptly describes business innovation, but not in the way it’s commonly used. When most people use this metaphor they are talking about the seeds. Seeds are important, but they pretty much take care of themselves. A seed has all the information it needs to succeed and thrive. All the instructions are already inside. What it doesn’t necessarily have is enough water, warmth, sunlight and nutrients. Great ideas are like seeds, in that they too need the right environment in which to grow.

In every organization, there’s no shortage of seeds. Company after company has discovered that when management actively seeks and encourages new ideas, the result is literally thousands of suggestions. Why didn’t they surface before? Because no one asked for them or rewarded employees for offering them. Too often when good ideas are offered, they’re ignored or never seriously developed. So the unspoken message is, “Don’t bother.”

In other words, there’s a poor innovation environment. Change that environment in ways that promote innovation and ideas sprout like new grass after a spring rain. Seeds that went unnoticed suddenly germinate, becoming a source of dramatic new growth.

Creating an innovation culture means rewarding the behavior we want to see. That usually requires some changes within management. Changes that promote flexibility, permit a degree of experimentation, and provide strong communications. It means a shift in attitudes to encourage and reward improvisation, collaboration and creative problem solving—at all levels.

Without a healthy innovation culture, even the best ideas will die.

Creating and maintaining such a culture needs to be done thoughtfully. Just as seeds need appropriate and sustained amounts of moisture and nutrients, ideas need to be carefully cultivated, then harvested when they’re mature. It’s not a random process, but rather one that requires patience and expertise and a willingness to take risks. Innovation is change and change is inherently risky, but no riskier than clinging to the status quo, hoping someone has a good idea.