Creating a reliable capability for innovation requires that a number of factors be addressed and aligned. This article addresses Culture, Communications and Motivation, but equally important are other elements such as strategy, leadership, process, roles, skills, etc. Refer to my article, Eight Key Dimensions to Sustainable Innovation, for an eight-element framework outlining these other key factors.
Much has been written about corporate culture, most of it pointing to the same woeful conclusions: culture is a major determinant of success and there is no easy way to influence it in one's favor. Cultural incompatibility has brought down giant mergers, and cultural inflexibility is cited in the decline of major corporations. While changes in strategy and business models, and even huge infusions of cash, can all be accomplished amazingly quickly, culture change can defy even the most determined and persistent leader. And to make matters worse, the culture needed to support innovation is contrary to the "default culture" that exists in organizations that do not manage culture: avoid mistakes, do not surprise your boss, do not "make waves", do what's expected. For innovation to flourish, these natural tendencies must be up-ended.
The message of this article, however, is that culture can be channeled and aligned to support innovation. The following four aspects are critical:
- Understand the many different cultures that exist in every organization.
- Communicate accomplishments, not intent.
- Stop talking about failure.
- Reward and recognize appropriately.
Understand the many different cultures that exist in every organization
As challenging as culture can be, it gets even more mind-boggling when you realize how many different cultures exist in parallel in any given organization:
- headquarters culture (ivory tower, politics) versus other locations (pragmatic performance)
- executive culture (big moves in strategy, finance) versus middle management (maintain control) versus individual contributors (tired of status quo)
- functional cultures: engineering (perfect design) versus marketing (fast to market) versus customer support/service (planned change) versus finance (manage risk)
- ethnic cultures of international locations — and ethnic mixes in many locations
Each of these cultures views innovation differently, and "opportunity or threat" is just one crude way of assessing these views.
Communicate accomplishments, not intent
In their zeal to promote innovation, leaders tend to focus on principles, frameworks, models and unrealistic comparators (e.g., "Be more like Amazon.") The allure of a great graphic and tidy message fits neatly into executives' strategic view of the organization. Unfortunately, neat does not change attitudes and behavior. To change the culture, focus on specific examples of desired innovation behaviors and outcomes, such as the following:
- Someone hanging around with customers, distributors or retailers to learn about their problems and come up with solutions.
- Someone jury-rigging a new product, or making changes to an existing product, to be able to demonstrate how something new might look and function.
- Someone buying a competitor's product or service to gain hands-on experience.
- Someone venturing far outside the industry for other ways to solve a problem. ("This is how ants deal with this same kind of thing.")
- Someone taking home the pieces of a cancelled project and working on it in his/her spare time.
- Someone working with "lead users" to discover needs and adaptations that might appeal more broadly.
Stop talking about failure
When the innovation literature encourages organizations to "make it okay to fail", I am reminded of Gary Larson's cartoon about the dog, Ginger, being scolded by her owner — from the perspective of a tail-wagging Ginger — "Blah blah blah blah Ginger blah blah blah blah blah Ginger ..." The same thing happens when leaders say things like, "Failure is not a bad thing. We all have to become more comfortable with failure and learn to fail faster." Instead, reframe the goal around learning: learning faster, learning from everything we do, sharing learning across the organization. Ask, "What have you learned lately? What experiments have you conducted? What feedback have you gotten? What are you going to try next? Who else needs to know about this? Is there any way I can help you?" People who are learning are fueling your organization's future. Those who steadfastly maintain the status quo are useful today but also prone to be an obstacle to innovation.
Reward and recognize appropriately
So much has been written about the contrary effects of rewards that I've lost track of the state of the argument. Here are some simple principles that should support your innovation efforts without backfiring:
- Words count for a lot. Tell stories about individual efforts and accomplishments, being sure to mention names. And don't forgot to recognize those supervisors who provided the necessary "air cover" or, at the very least, turned a blind eye to someone's little side project.
- Opportunity counts for even more. Those who are innovating are thinking ahead, taking risks and demonstrating initiative; exactly the behaviors you need from your future leaders. Give these kinds of individuals the opportunity to take on bigger roles and to tackle other innovations, and keep an eye on their career progression.
- Avoid the money pit. Awarding money means you need formal nomination and selection processes, which means that some will be deselected and hence demotivated. Avoid this trap and focus on other forms of recognition.
It would be naïve to expect a simple four-point plan to quickly align an organization's many cultures to embrace innovation. Indeed, aligning culture takes time and persistence on the part of an organization's leaders. For most, it feels like an inefficient activity with no concrete outcome of any magnitude. However, a culture can trump strategy, structure, process, and other controllable variables, either rendering impotent a well-designed innovation approach, or conversely driving innovation results in an organization with few formal mechanisms. Either way, you need culture on your side.
Complete the online Innovation Capabilities Survey to assess your organization's innovation capability and receive an interactive innovation report comparing your responses to others.
Andy Beaulieu has over 20 years of performance improvement experience as both an internal specialist in global organizations and as an external consultant. Based in Washington DC, USA, his services span the spectrum of technical and interpersonal interventions. In his various roles, Andy has consulted to management, helped groups form and succeed, developed leaders, managed change initiatives, and reengineered business processes. His work has seen him develop and implement large-scale tools and systems to improve organizational effectiveness in well-known organizations across a variety of industries. Andy has also authored nine book chapters published by Jossey-Bass and McGraw-Hill, as well as other articles and government reports. To find out about Andy's program for high potential future leaders on fast-cycle innovation projects or other ways that he can help you, contact us at email@example.com
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