Monday, November 23, 2015

Embedding innovation deep in your culture

Over the last few weeks I've been working with a client that is struggling to fully implement a new strategy that introduces innovation as an important component of day to day operations.  The company has a strong executional culture and has been successful in the past, but recognizes the need to do more innovation and more consistently.  As you might think, I've been working with them on their rewards, motivations, language, communication and other factors that build or sustain culture, trying to shift corporate thinking to embrace more innovation.  What's become apparent for me, one of those "ah-ha" moments, is that culture has different incarnations, and each must be changed for innovation to be successfully grafted into an existing culture.

Cultural Incarnations

I saw incarnations but we could call the different aspects of culture almost anything - faces, personalities or other descriptors.  Let's examine a few and talk about what's valuable and important about each, and why they matter to innovation.

One incarnation of culture is about how we treat and interact with our fellow employees. In this regard, culture signals what we should respect and value about our fellow employees, how we interact with them, what information we share and what we withhold.  This aspect of culture is important for day to day operations, and for innovation as well.  People who are rewarded for withholding innovation, or creating cliques, are often seeking awards and achievement for themselves, and will rarely share ideas with others.  Conversely, when people recognize this behavior they will not communicate or share good ideas, for fear that their ideas will be co-opted and others will claim the benefits and rewards.  A culture that encourages the hoarding of ideas or information and restricts honest and clear communication may be able to achieve efficient operations but cannot achieve good innovation.

A second incarnation, and perhaps the one I've been having the biggest "ah-ha" about lately, is the aspect of culture that instructs and directs how work gets done.  Far too often we see corporations asking, requesting and even demanding innovation from their staff, but failing to provide new tools, new techniques and new skills to help the staff create the new deliverables.  When asked to produce something new and different, but without new tools or a description of the new deliverable, teams revert to what's known and trusted.  And what's known and trusted are existing tools, existing ways of thinking and existing culture.  We cannot simply demand innovation without a corresponding effort to provide new tools, new skills and describe new deliverables. 

How culture, tools and skills are linked

When we roll out a new "innovation culture" it must of course provide opportunities for exploration and encourage risk taking.  Additionally, it must reward these activities and encourage open exchange of information and ideas. These factors all involve different aspects of culture that focus on the "what" and the "why" of innovation.  But we often neglect perhaps the most important aspect of culture - the "how" - how things get done, what tools should be implemented, what activities and skills must change in order to deliver new expectations.  Rolling out an innovation culture without a simultaneous introduction of new skills, new tools, new decision making and examples of new deliverables simply places strain on the existing culture and existing tools, and leads to heroic but ultimately doomed efforts to create new ideas in a stale, traditional environment with inadequate thinking and tools more suited for efficiency than innovation.

Innovation Failures

So, in the final analysis we can deconstruct what happens when executives demand innovation, yet fail to introduce new skills or tools or describe how an innovation imperative may change existing processes, decision making and skills.

  1. Executives call for "more innovation" but don't describe how this new strategy becomes a reality in day to day operations.  What should change, what should be introduced, what should be eliminated?
  2. Managers hear the call for innovation but don't find accompanying directions for new activities, don't gain more resources or skills.  Innovation is avoided if possible or conducted with less than full commitment within existing culture, processes and constraints.
  3. Managers are careful to keep innovation within tightly controlled boundaries, never interfering or upsetting day to day operations or distracting teams from doing their day jobs.
  4. Innovation teams are frustrated because they see the opportunities for larger, more disruptive ideas but they are hemmed in by tools, processes and deliverables that are suited for efficiency rather than innovation.
  5. Innovation teams produce "innovations" that look remarkably similar to existing products and services.  The new solutions aren't differentiated and don't produce a lot of value, leading executives to think that their teams can't innovate or that innovation is a wasted exercise, rather than drawing the proper conclusion that the teams needed new culture and new methods to create new products.
  6. Managers are rewarded for keeping the day to day operations efficient and effective.
  7. Executives are happy their teams continue to execute on a quarterly basis but are frustrated by their inability to drive new growth and create new products
  8. The cycle repeats
What's worse is that in many companies the different aspects of culture will adopt innovation at different rates.  Sometimes the language and intent of innovation will catch fire, and you'll find many people talking about innovation and trying to conduct it, but the portion of culture that deal with decision making, tools and day to day processes haven't been infected by innovation, so the passionate teams run into dispassionate, outdated and inadequate systems which don't understand what innovation is or how to manage it.

 You see, if your culture wasn't built with innovation as a vital component, then you face a significant challenge to fully introduce innovation as a factor in every aspect of your culture, from your decision making and language to your reward systems and so on.  Many companies are working on these aspects of culture.  But what will ultimately deliver success is infecting your operational culture with the capabilities, tools, methods and skills that make doing innovation more straightforward.  Talking about innovation, even sharing the same language is valuable, as is considering the rewards for innovators, but providing the tools, skills and desired outcomes is what will help teams actually deliver.

AddThis Social Bookmark Button
posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:22 AM


Post a Comment

<< Home