Thursday, July 09, 2015

Innovation is a cultural phenomenon

There's really no easy way to say this, so I'll come right out with it.  It's your culture that's holding you back when you try to innovate, but no one wants to admit that.  Most consultants and executives want to focus on interesting innovation tools, or idea management software, or creative design concepts, because these are flashy and new, and distract attention from the real challenge at hand.  Which is your culture.  If culture "eats strategy for breakfast", what do you think it eats for lunch and dinner?  Crazy innovation activities mostly.

When we talk and write about innovation, we are constantly holding up the same companies as arbiters of innovation excellence.  Apple, Google, 3M and others who have demonstrated the ability to innovate in two interesting dimensions.  First, they've been really good at creating disruptive innovations that people want to acquire or use.  Second, they've been able to sustain innovation over a period of a decade or more.  Any company can innovate once, and some can even create a really interesting disruptive new product or service.  But only a few can both disrupt industries and sustain innovation over a long period of time. And those that do, inevitably, have a culture that engages and sustains discovery, experimentation, risk taking and innovation.

So why do we do it backwards?

The real conundrum, then, if innovation is a cultural phenomenon, is why most companies do everything backwards.  What I mean by this is that if innovation is a cultural issue, why do companies put off or delay cultural change, and instead focus on short term incremental projects, hoping to create interesting innovation?

Conceptually, the approach to building innovation competencies should be:
  1. Develop a cultural bias for innovation by increasing opportunities for risk taking, encouraging experimentation, fast failure.
  2. Build reward systems and compensation systems that encourage innovation
  3. Define innovation tools and processes and train people to build skills
  4. Conduct innovation projects
If culture is powerful (and we are constantly reminded that it is), why do we constantly ignore it or reverse the logical order of developing an innovation competence?  Instead, most attempts at building innovation competence by firms that aren't that innovative today look like this:

  1. Experiment with small, incremental innovation activities
  2. Train a small team on innovation skills
  3. Conduct an occasional periodic innovation project
  4. Communicate generally and sporadically about the importance of innovation
  5. Acknowledge that culture is important but never engage any change
Strange, isn't it, that what most of us acknowledge as one of, if not the most, important aspect of building innovation competencies and capabilities is virtually ignored and rarely feels any impact or change.  This would be similar to building a skyscraper but neglecting to focus on the foundation.  Would you be surprised if it toppled over or sunk into the ground if the foundations was imperfect?

Why is culture so challenging?

In fairness, changing a corporate culture is daunting, regardless of the driving need.  Whether the culture needs to shift because of changing market conditions, business model needs or innovation, changing a culture is never easy and always time consuming.  Many businesses are aware of the investment and are trying to pull a fast one - get innovation underway as a project before the culture becomes aware, because the culture will resist innovation.

But what I can't understand is the learned helplessness, the virtual surrender, when we talk to our customers about the need for cultural change.  Talk about the elephant in the room!  Everyone acknowledges that cultural change is important, but no one wants to own the responsibility and everyone hopes to get just enough innovation down without impacting the culture at all.  Keats, the famous English poet had a good analogy for this effort.  On his tombstone he asked for the following epitaph:  Here lies he whose name is writ in water. Doing innovation without changing or impacting the culture is like writing your name in water.  It appears momentarily, then the surface of the water returns to its original shape and form.  You've had no lasting impact.  The same is true when you "innovate" without attempting to educate, impact or change the culture.

Evolving an innovation culture
Let's first acknowledge that most cultures need to change, and at a minimum put in place a transition plan for that change.  Of course we must continue to conduct innovation activities and projects while we are changing the culture, but one should not be placed "on hold" for the other.

Start by developing the rationale for change.  Cultures, like people, need rationales.  They can be educated, they can be negotiated with, because after all a culture is collective wisdom and expectation of the employee base.  Next, introduce new rewards and encouragements for innovation - more opportunities for risk taking, for exploration, for discovery, and even for safe failure.  Build new innovation skills, not just in isolated teams, but broadly across the organization.  Let people see and understand that innovation isn't a strange, unusual process but a set of reliable tools and insights that can be applied in many different situations.  As the motivations and incentives increase, and the fear and risk decrease, a groundswell of interest will emerge, because after all, while cultures are strong, pent up ideas and opportunities will create a geyser of innovation if they are allowed to be released.

Let's stop doing innovation backwards.  Let's start with the changes that will accelerate innovation capability and lower innovation resistance, and that's by shifting and evolving an existing culture to innovation.  The alternative, which many companies practice today, is simply to conduct innovation against the resistance of the corporate culture, which only builds cynicism and makes subsequent attempts without changes to the culture even more fraught with difficulty.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:29 AM


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