Friday, December 11, 2009

Conditions that can create an innovation culture

I've been thinking a lot lately about "creating a culture of innovation", which is what a lot of firms suggest they want to do.  Of course this is a very lofty goal.  Changing a corporate culture doesn't happen easily, and it certainly doesn't happen overnight.  Yet clearly one of the most significant barriers to innovation is the entrenched culture of effectiveness and efficiency, of risk-avoidance and following rather than leading.

So, that led me to think about when teams and groups within an organization can be innovative, and what the conditions were when that happened.  We regularly lead teams on trend spotting and scenario planning exercises that create some really radical future scenarios, with little resistance, and often lead ideation and brainstorming programs that achieve a large number of disruptive or radical ideas.  These small programs demonstrate that innovation can happen in any organization under certain conditions.  Let's first look at what makes these small programs effective.

We find that we can be most effective with these discovery and idea generation programs when we set very clear expectations about our goals and prepare the team carefully for the work, setting out specific rules and expectations.  Typically when we go into the work, we'll close the door and tell the team that anything that happens in the room is fair game, and open for discussion, and we aren't bound by the "normal" rules.  This helps get the team out of the "day to day" thinking and encourage their creative thinking.  They know that no one will be allowed to ridicule an idea or submit challenges that will block the consideration of an idea.  For those few moments or days, we have created a "micro-climate" for innovation, probably akin to a hothouse in the wintertime.

So, if we can create some assorted micro-climates where teams can spot opportunities and emerging trends, and effectively generate ideas, can we build on the "micro-climate" concept to create more areas where conditions are ripe for innovation?  Using the flower analogy, can we move the ideas from one hothouse to another, gradually exposing the ideas to the elements and improving the chances for survival, while we try to change the conditions of the organization at large (change the cultural attitudes to innovation)?

I'd like to suggest the first step may be to create a number of "micro-climates" - safe locations to generate, develop and evaluate ideas that exist specifically to give ideas the necessary environments to grow.  Some firms use a designated space for innovation.  Perhaps the best way to change the culture is to start small, with several micro-climates that establish conditions for innovation and allow the process to prove its worth.

Eventually the idea needs to be exposed to the conditions, and planted where it will bear fruit. That is, it must make a transition from an interesting idea to a new product or service, and that means it must work its way through the product or service development process.  There are two considerations here:  either the existing product or service development process must be adjusted to accept and manage new, possibly more disruptive and fragile concepts, or new product and service development models must be developed for more radical ideas.  To carry the plant analogy further, any farmer worth his salt will cover plants in the field that are susceptible to a killing frost or unexpected conditions.  So, too, must an organization provide more cover and care for a radical idea as it moves through a traditional product development process.

The point here is that too many times we talk about "changing the culture" and immediately reject the concept, since it is such a Herculean task.  Perhaps what we should do is establish small teams and locations where the conditions are beneficial to innovation - small micro-climates where ideas can succeed, and string them together.  Once we've demonstrated success, we won't have to worry about changing the culture, because slowly the organization will recognize success and begin to adapt to the best concepts that the conditions in the micro-climates offer them.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:51 AM


Blogger Richard J. Sexton (rs79) said...

This resonates with Paul Romer's idea on charter cities:

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I liked the idea of the "micro-climates". It is a good analogy.

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Anonymous Carlos Navarro said...

Excellent. I think you nailed it when you stated the need to "create some assorted micro-climates where teams can spot opportunities and emerging trends..." By doing this, perhaps you can overcome internal, cultural obstacles to innovation -- such as silos and the ever-prevalent "not how we do it here" syndrome.

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